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NRL players found to have brain disease

A brain disease linked with repetitive head injury in American football has now been identified in the brains of former NRL players.

Researchers from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University of Sydney have found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE in two brains of former rugby league players.

The lead author of the study, Clinical Associate Professor Michael Buckland, said he had looked at 1,000 brains over a decade and had never come across this sort of pathology.

“The changes in the two brains were distinctive, definitive, and met consensus diagnostic criteria for CTE,” he said.

Cases of CTE have been described for over 100 years, originally found in boxers and was called punch-drunk syndrome.

More recently, it was discovered to be rampant throughout NFL players in America with as many as 99 per cent of players having the brain disease.

An American study found CTE in 177 of 202 brains of players across the game and is associated to repetitive head injuries, in the form of concussions and blows that do not cause signs or symptoms, known as sub-concussive impacts.

It now seems that rugby league and many other collision sports players in Australia may also have CTE, said Associate Professor Buckland.

“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 two cases have been published as de-identified case reports and no further details of the players are available other than they are both middle-aged former professionals who played more than 150 NRL games.

The discovery sparked the establishment of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, which will research CTE in brains donated by the public, with so far more than 80 athletes having pledged their brains.

“It is only through the commitment from athletes and the sporting codes that we will fully understand the factors that cause CTE, how to minimise them, and how to effectively treat this disease,” said Associate Professor Buckland.

Dr Christopher Nowinski, the head of the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston, commended the Australian authors for their discovery.

“We hope the first proof of CTE in rugby league inspires the Australian scientific community to mobilise in the fight against CTE and advances the conversation on reforms to sport that can prevent this disease.”