The Newcastle Knights, University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) are teaming up to help tackle questions surrounding possible long-term effects of concussion in rugby league players.
As part of the first NRL-specific neurological study of its kind, players will undergo state-of-the-art MRI scanning at the newly opened HMRI Imaging Centre.
Professor Chris Levi*, leader of HMRI’s Brain and Mental Health research program, says a lot more research is needed to understand whether there is a significant risk of health problems from concussion in rugby league.
“Currently we are unable to say whether rugby league players who have sustained concussion are at long-term risk of physical or mental impairment,” Professor Levi said. “The research that has been undertaken in American football leaves questions unanswered and may not necessarily translate to our Australian football codes.
“To build a clear understanding we must study both the potential mechanisms that associate with injury and also search for any clinical evidence of long-term adverse effects. The advanced imaging technology will enable our researchers to explore whether there are any injury markers and potentially provide new insights into vulnerability and risk.
“The unit is the best of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, and it will allow clinical exploration that was previously impossible. Hopefully we can lift the veil on diagnosis and neurological pathways.”
Working with Professor Levi, University of Newcastle clinical neuropsychologist Dr Andrew Gardner has conducted regular concussion clinics with league players from the NRL and Newcastle Rugby League in recent years, submitting them to rigorous cognitive, balance and motor-skills testing.
MRI scanning, Dr Gardner says, will complement those assessment tests by providing a precise, real-time visual perspective of brain response.
“There is scientific uncertainty surrounding concussion,” he said. “This type of MRI research has never been done with NRL players before, so it’s great that the Knights are taking a positive and proactive approach to ensure player welfare by being involved in our research.”
Acting Facility Manager of the HMRI Imaging Centre, Associate Professor Peter Stanwell, will also work on the study, having gained extensive experience in the United States.
“This is important research for young generations of football players,” Associate Professor Stanwell said. “There is negative publicity surrounding contact sports at the moment but insufficient scientific evidence. It’s important that we investigate and demystify this issue so we don’t discourage children from being active or involved in sport.”
As an expert in the new MRI technology, Associate Professor Stanwell will be working with Knights players to examine functional connectivity within the brain.
“HMRI’s scanner is unique because we will go beyond structural imaging and look at the functional connectivity and ‘wires’ connecting specific brain regions that allow us to accomplish tasks,” he said.
“Once we can understand normal functional connectivity we can then begin to identify what is abnormal in brain injuries.”
Newcastle Knights CEO Matt Gidley said the Club was proud to support the team at HMRI to further this research, using the most advanced imaging available.
“For our players, and for the rugby league as a whole, it is great to see this ground-breaking research being conducted right here in the Hunter,” Mr Gidley said.
* Professor Chris Levi is from the University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Health, researching with the HMRI Brain and Mental Health program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.