The European wing of what is now a major international study into the long-term consequences of concussion among those who play contact sport has been publicly launched, with an initial focus on jockeys.
The ground-breaking study seeks to establish whether retired sportsmen and sportswomen have an increased incidence, or suffer an earlier onset, of neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease and the condition currently described as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The issue of concussion, and its diagnosis and treatment in sport, remains contentious.
This debate is set to be further fuelled by the release of the film Concussion, starring Will Smith, which tells the story of the doctor in the United States who connected incidents of repeated concussion in former American football players to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The London-based International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation was launched late in January to spearhead the European side of the international collaboration, with its project called Concussion in Sport.
The foundation will collaborate with existing and on-going projects in Australia, Switzerland and the United States.
The Concussion in Sport research project will be impartial and include all sports where concussion is a recognised risk. However, because horse-racing is the sport with the highest recorded rates of concussion, the initial screening focus will be on retired jockeys – professional and amateur – living in Britain, Ireland and France.
Among the first volunteers for the study is former jockey Richard Dunwoody.
During a 17-year race-riding career, Dunwoody rode 1699 winners, was champion jockey three times and twice won the Grand National before a neck injury forced him to retire in 1999.
Now a photographer and explorer, Dunwoody will undergo MRI scanning, blood tests and a full behavioral analysis as part of the research.
“As professional jockeys, with on average a fall every 14 rides, it was accepted that we would suffer concussion but we gave little thought as to what the long-term effects of repetitive head injuries would be, so this is an important research project, not only for racing, but for all sports,” Dunwoody said.
“It will be of great benefit to establish the facts regarding the effects of concussion and to be able to minimise risks for athletes in the future.”
Joining Dunwoody in volunteering for screening are fellow former champion jockeys Sir Anthony McCoy, Peter Scudamore, John Francome and Stan Mellor.
Funding and support for the project has come from a range of sources, including the Injured Jockeys Fund, the racing operation Godolphin and the NFL (American football league), as well as private backers.
Former England rugby player, Sir Clive Woodward, who went on to coach the national side, welcomed the project, saying concussion had now become a major concern for all contact sports.
“Only through high quality, independent research can we uncover the true facts surrounding this complicated condition.”
The Concussion in Sport research project is led by Dr Michael Turner, who has more than 40 years of experience working in sports medicine.
“Through impartial, objective analysis of a significant pool of data, we will seek to establish whether there is any correlation between repeated concussion and long-term damage to the brain,” Turner said.
“The over-arching objective is to acquire sufficient data to better predict the outcome of repetitive brain injuries and thereby facilitate better an understanding of individual risk.”
Retired sportsmen and women from other sports can already enroll in the Concussion in Sport research, for example rugby union, rugby league, football, boxing and equestrian sports.
The foundation is also appealing to members of the public who have never had a concussion to contribute to the study as the control group. These volunteers will enable a direct comparison to be made with the concussed group.
“For the first time,” said Turner, “a state of the art, controlled, multi-sport research study will look exclusively at concussion in European sportsmen and women, starting with a detailed study of more than 200 former jockeys.
“Members of the public are crucial to our success as we need a cohort of people of similar age, gender and weight to compare to the group who have been concussed.”
Those interested in participating, either as a person who suffered sports-related concussion or as a control, can flag their interest by completing a registration form at www.concussioninsport.org. Once this has been logged, the individual will be offered the opportunity to complete an online questionnaire on an annual basis.
From the volunteers who complete the online questionnaire, several will be invited to attend for detailed medical screening in London. This will involve MRI scanning, blood tests, neuropsychological screening and a review by several different medical experts. The costs for screening will be covered by the foundation and the project will continue to monitor the progress of all the participants (questionnaire only and screened individuals) over subsequent years.