In what stands as both an Australian first and a horrifying development, researchers have identified severe damage linked to repeated concussions and blows to the head in the brains of two former NRL players.

A study published by leading neuropathology researchers at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital detailed how evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the brain disease most widely associated with former NFL players in America – was found in the brains of two men who previously played first-grade rugby league in Australia, marking the first time the disease has been identified in NRL players, and just the second and third times that the disease has been observed in Australian sportspeople overall.

Clinical associate professor Michael Buckland, the lead author of the study and the head of Neuropathology Department at the RPA, stated that the changes in the two brains, which were donated for study post-mortem, were “distinctive, definitive, and met consensus diagnostic criteria for CTE.

I have looked at about 1000 brains over the last 10 years, and I have not seen this sort of pathology in any other case before.

The fact that we have now seen these changes in former rugby league players indicates that they, and likely other Australian collision sports players, are not immune to CTE, a disease that has gained such high profile in the United States.

The case study does not disclose the identity of the players whose brains were analysed in the study, but does confirm that they both played at least 150 games of games of first-grade football in the NRL or equivalent top flight Australian league.

CTE is a growing area of concern for people in professional, full-contact sports, and is characterised in young sufferers by erratic mood swings, memory problems, and mental health issues like extreme depression and anxiety. It has frequently been diagnosed in the brains of former college or professional American football players who have taken their own lives, and is virtually indistinguishable from the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. At present, it can only be diagnosed after death.

Notably, CTE was found in the brain of former WWE wrestler Chris Benoit, who in 2007 murdered his wife and 7-year-old son before taking his own life at the age of 40. Subsequent postmortem investigations have suggested that repeated brain trauma and CTE symptoms may have contributed to a change in behaviour that resulted in the murders.

The NRL is not the only league in Australia currently dealing with concussion-related issues at present; the AFL is staring down the barrel of a class action lawsuit from former players, all complaining of memory, emotional, and cognitive disorders that have developed later in life as a result of concussions suffered while playing the game.

In recent times, both the AFL and NRL have stepped up their concussion protocols for players who suffer head knocks on-field.

Source: The Australian
Image: Getty Images / Cameron Spencer