Rising Brain Risk with Each Year of Rugby

Scientists at the University of Cambridge, inspired by the structure and function of the human brain, imposed physical constraints on an artificial intelligence system. Led by Jascha Achterberg and Danyal Akarca from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (MRC CBSU), the team aimed to replicate the developmental constraints faced by biological brains in their AI model.

A recent study has shed light on the concerning relationship between playing rugby and the risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. CTE, often linked to repeated head injuries that jolt the brain against the skull, is known to manifest as memory issues, mood changes, depression, and dementia later in life, with some individuals diagnosed as young as 17.


In this study, 31 former rugby union players who donated their brains for research were examined, and approximately 68% of them were found to have CTE, spanning both amateur and elite players. Notably, the risk of developing CTE was found to be closely tied to the length of a player’s rugby career, with each additional year of play increasing the CTE risk by 14%.

Interestingly, while 19 players had reported a history of concussions, it was revealed that non-concussive head knocks over a player’s career seemed to drive brain changes leading to CTE. This discovery underscores the urgent need to reduce both the number and strength of head impacts in rugby and other contact sports to safeguard players from CTE.

Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Boston University CTE Center, stressed the preventable nature of CTE and the necessity to protect players from this debilitating condition. The study, although relatively small, adds to the mounting evidence of the risks associated with contact sports, affecting amateur and professional players of all genders.

While prior research primarily focused on NFL players, who showed a high prevalence of CTE, studies on soccer, Australian Rules football (AFL), and now rugby players are yielding similar troubling results. Rugby union, in particular, presents a higher risk of concussion compared to other contact sports.


Tara Spires-Jones, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh, highlighted the need for increased player protection, particularly among professional or elite athletes. It is increasingly clear that repeated head impacts, even without overt concussion symptoms, pose a significant risk for CTE and cognitive deficits.

In light of these findings, changes to how rugby and other contact sports are played and practiced may offer a path to reducing CTE risk, emphasizing the importance of minimizing the number and intensity of head impacts during play.

This crucial study on rugby and CTE has been published in Acta Neuropathologica, serving as a stark reminder of the imperative to prioritize player safety in contact sports.


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