Rugby concussion only triggers ‘mild’ memory effects

A Glasgow University study on the effects of concussions in former Scotland rugby players has found they displayed only "mild" memory effects. Photo: David Gibson
A Glasgow University study on the effects of concussions in former Scotland rugby players has found they displayed only "mild" memory effects. Photo: David Gibson
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RUGBY players who suffer repeated concussions during their career are only at risk of “mild” memory effects in later life, research suggests.

Experts from Glasgow University examined 52 retired Scottish male international rugby players, including Scotland’s most-capped player Chris Paterson, and found little difference in cognitive tests compared to 29 volunteers.

The sport has attracted controversy as repeated concussions have been linked to neuro­degenerative disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain. Top doctors led by former Edinburgh University academic Professor Allyson Pollock called for a ban of full-contact rugby in schools earlier this year, claiming the risk of serious injury was too high.

But the new study found no significant effects on daily life among the retired players, who had suffered an average of 14 concussions each.

Professor Tom McMillan, an expert in clinical neuropsychology at Glasgow University, said: “Despite a high number of repeat concussions in the retired rugby players, effects on mental health, social or work function were not evident some 20 years after they had stopped playing.

“Overall there is not a suggestion of widespread decline in daily function in ex-rugby internationalists who had a high number of repeat concussions. Although some differences in memory were found, these were mild overall and their cause uncertain.”

The rugby players fared worse on verbal reasoning and hand co-ordination than the volunteers but cognitive tests showed few differences, the paper, published yesterday in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, found.

The research also found that there were no “significant associations” between the number of concussions and the participants’ performances on cognitive tests.

Prof Pollock, a public health expert at Queen Mary University London, said the study was too small to record more than slight effects reiterated the need for caution.

Scottish Rugby welcoming the findings but called for more research into concussion in players.

A spokesperson said: “While the results in this study show no evident effects on general long-term health, Scottish Rugby believes it is important knowledge of concussion continues to grow and we will contribute to relevant future studies whenever possible.”