Former top All Blacks donate brains for research

Newstalk ZB / Dylan Cleaver, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 6 Dec 2019, 3:14PM
Former Junior All Blacks player John Williams. Photo / Alan Gibson

Former top All Blacks donate brains for research

Newstalk ZB / Dylan Cleaver, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 6 Dec 2019, 3:14PM

The families of top former All Blacks are likely to donate their loved ones' brains to research so the effect of head impacts in sport can be studied.

New Zealand's only human brain bank is today launching a collaboration with the US-based Concussion Legacy Foundation for the research into sport's influence on brain health and brain disease.

An extension to the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland will collect from donors who have played contact sports like rugby, league and boxing, and others such as football, whether or not they have experienced concussion.

More specifically, they will be looking for signs of CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to repetitive brain trauma in contact sport athletes.

The families of many former rugby players, including All Blacks, have already indicated they are likely to donate.

Former Junior All Black John "JJ" Williams has committed his brain. He is planning to attend today's launch and said it was a "massive chance to try to understand what is happening with me".

Williams, 62, was knocked out many times during his first-class career as a lock in the late 70s and 80s, and has suffered from memory loss, mood swings and chronic headaches over the past decade.

In 2016, the Herald uncovered a cluster of players from Taranaki's successful Ranfurly Shield side of the 1960s, including All Blacks Ross Brown and Neil Wolfe, who had either died from or were living with dementia.

Legendary All Black Waka Nathan then spoke to the Herald about his struggle with dementia.

Wolfe's eldest son Todd will be attending the launch, and Nathan's daughter said his family would be at the launch.

That story quickly mushroomed as many families of international, representative and club rugby wrote in to tell their stories of living with a relative with dementia.

Many wondered whether it had been the sport they loved that had led to the illness.

The New Zealand Sports Human Brain Bank Initiative will be led by internationally recognised neuroscientist, distinguished professor Sir Richard Faull.

The work will feed into the Concussion Legacy Foundation Global Brain Bank. The CLF is led by co-founder Dr Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestler and college American footballer, who was forced to retire early after suffering repeated concussions.

The charity's most recognised collaboration has been with Boston University, whose research team led by Dr Ann McKee has diagnosed more than 400 cases of CTE. More than 100 former NFL players are among that number.

Rugby players in the US and Australia have been diagnosed but none in New Zealand.

"We are thrilled that Sir Richard Faull and the impressive team at the University of Auckland Centre for Brain Research are joining the fight against CTE," said Nowinski.

"The global sports community needs top scientists studying our brains so we can learn to diagnose and treat this disease."

According to ACC statistics, 21 per cent of brain injuries in New Zealand happen through sport. In 2018, more than 9000 reported concussions were in young people 19 years or under.

"With a large focus on contact sports in our culture, it's important that New Zealand is part of this global conversation and that our sports people are included and have access to relevant research results," Faull said.

"We join a growing global network of international brain banks in Australia, Brazil and the United States who offer this research. We're proud to partner with them to better understand the impact on the brain."

Also attending the conference is Dr Michael Buckland, who heads a similar brain bank established in Sydney last year.

"I hope that by working together we can make a uniquely Antipodean contribution to international collaborative efforts to understand, treat and prevent CTE," Buckland said.

New Zealand Rugby has established its own study into whether its players are at greater risk of neurodegenerative brain diseases than the general population.

Led by scientist Ken Quarrie, they have established a rugby cohort that they can feed into the Department of Statistics Integrated Data Infrastructure.