Concussions are quite common in rugby, accounting for one in five injuries. Now the results of a recent Drake Foundation study show that sustaining a concussion in rugby may increase the risk for changes in brain structure.
The intent of the research was to ensure safer rugby practices by uncovering links between head injuries and neurodegenerative disease. It is the first study to examine brain changes in advanced MRI brain scans of professional rugby players.
Studying the Effects of Concussions in Rugby
The study, funded by the not-for-profit Drake Foundation, spotlights the long-term risks of concussions and other head injuries sustained during rugby. Between July 2017 and September 2019, the research team examined the brain health of 44 professional rugby players from several Championship and Premiership rugby union and rugby league teams. Of these, 21 of the players had recently sustained a mild head injury while participating in the sport.
All participants underwent an advanced MRI brain scan that can detect subtle details in brain structure; approximately half of the subjects underwent a second scan a year later. The research team then compared the rugby players’ brain scans with brain scans of athletes who play non-collision sports, and scans of individuals who do not play sports at all.
The researchers utilized two types of advanced MRIs – diffusion tensor imaging and susceptibility-weighted imaging. These advanced imaging tests reveal the structure of blood vessels and changes in white matter, which is the tissue that helps brain cells communicate. These advanced MRIs are superior to standard MRIs, which are more likely to miss the small structural details and changes in white matter.
Study results show concussions in rugby cause abnormalities in brain structure
The results of the study show that 23 percent of rugby-playing participants had abnormalities in their cell axons, which are the nerve fibres that carry the electrical impulses brain cells use to communicate, or small tears in the blood vessels of the brain. These abnormalities and tears were present in both players who had sustained recent head injuries and those who did not.
Of the group who underwent follow-up MRI scans, 50 percent had developed unexpected changes in the volume of white matter. While the long-term effects of structural changes are still unknown, the advanced technology of the advanced MRI scans may improve the way healthcare professionals monitor brain health among rugby players and others who sustain a concussion.
The researchers also had the players complete memory tests and other assessments to analyse the athletes’ brain function. The scientists found that those players who had brain structure abnormalities did not perform any worse than did those without such abnormalities.
In conclusion, the research team recommended further exploration of the long-term effects of concussion in rugby and emphasised that this further research should weigh the benefits of sport participation against the potential effects of rugby-related head injuries on brain health.
The effects of head injuries in elite rugby players are not comparable to those occurring in amateur players, in that non-professional athletes are less likely to sustain injuries at the same impact and speed as professionals in the sport.