Research shows huge spike in MND risk among former international players

LONDON, Oct 4 (Reuters) – A new study looking at the impact of a concussion on a group of former Scottish international rugby players has found they were 15 times more likely to develop motor neurone disease (MND ) than the general population.

The figure is likely to send shockwaves through the sport, which is already embroiled in a legal battle over the link between concussions and dementia praecox and which is scrambling to find ways to reduce incidences of concussions in matches and training at all levels.

In findings published Tuesday in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, the researchers found that the group of players had about two and a half times greater risk of neurodegenerative disease than expected, but that the position of the player had no impact on risk.

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The standout result was MND numbers, a condition that has been thrust into the rugby spotlight by the suffering of former Scottish lock Doddie Weir and former UK rugby league scrum-half Rob Burrow.

Led by consultant neuropathologist Willie Stewart, an honorary professor at the University of Glasgow, the FIELD research team compared the health outcomes of 412 former Scottish international rugby players and more than 1,200 matched individuals from the general population.

The study is a continuation of research carried out by the same organization on neurodegenerative risk in former professional footballers and players and also found similarities with the NFL.

“This latest work demonstrates that the risk of neurodegenerative disease is not isolated to former footballers, but also a concern for former rugby players,” Stewart told reporters.

“It provides further insight into the association between contact sports and the risk of neurodegenerative disease. The data on the risk of MND, which is even higher than that of former footballers, is of particular concern. This finding warrants attention. immediate research to explore the specific association between rugby and the devastating condition of MND.”

The findings come against the backdrop of a group of nearly 200 former players taking legal action against World Rugby, Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union.

The claimants, including England hooker Steve Thompson, who won the 2003 World Cup, argue the sport’s governing bodies were negligent in that they were aware of the risk but failed to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent brain damage and resulting early dementia. by repeated blows to the head.

Thompson, who was diagnosed with dementia praecox in 2020, will share her story in a BBC documentary airing in Britain on Wednesday.


In recent years rugby has implemented changes to the tackling law and moved towards a reduction in contact training in a bid to minimize impacts to the head, but Stewart urged action faster and faster.

“I think rugby could accelerate that pace of change,” he said. “I know it’s hard to think there’s less rugby than more, but maybe you see better quality rugby, players are less damaged and in better shape.

“Rugby has to think about that. You can’t keep putting young men and women through what they’ve been through, now we know that even since the amateur era there’s this risk of degenerative brain disease.”

Brian Dickie, director of research development at the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said the findings added weight to previous reports of increased risk in football players, but said that as a study “significantly more small”, there were questions about it.

“For example, it’s unclear exactly how many players have been diagnosed with MND, although based on the information provided, that absolute number will be low,” he said. “It is also surprising that no cases were reported in the larger control group, as MND is the most common neurodegenerative disease in midlife.

“Additionally, we know that the vast majority of MND cases involve a complex mix of genetic and environmental risk factors, so the level of genetic risk may be different in high performance athletes compared to the general population.

“What is clear is that this research needs to be extended to much wider populations, which will require close collaboration between researchers and rugby representative bodies in multiple countries.”

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Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge

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