Despite technical advances in medical imaging, the only way to definitively diagnose many types of brain disease is by examination of post-mortem tissue. The ASBB neuropathologists are expert in tissue-based diagnosis of all brain pathology, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Comprehensive neuropathological evaluation of brains donated to the ASBB will be provided to the nominated doctor so that the results can be discussed with the family. Together, the diagnoses of all brains donated to the ASBB will help us inform the community on the nature and extent of brain pathology associated with contact sports in Australia. This is something that is currently unknown.
After diagnosis is complete, brain tissue will then be used to support research into neurodegenerative diseases and other brain disorders associated with previous concussions or head impacts. Examples of such conditions include CTE, motor neuron disease, Alzheimer disease and Parkinson’s disease.
What is CTE?
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a seemingly rare brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head. It was first found in boxers some decades ago, and has since been described in American footballers and other sportspeople overseas. The incidence of CTE in Australian sports is currently unknown. CTE is a lesser known form of brain disease which can occur at any age, and in most cases the first symptoms occur years or decades after brain injury. Signs of CTE include problems with thinking and memory, personality changes, and behavioural changes including aggression and depression. The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has released a factsheet on CTE which can be downloaded here.
What is the ASBB trying to achieve?
We do not currently know whether, or how often, CTE or any other brain disease occurs in Australian contact sportspeople across different codes. Only one Australian rugby union player has been definitely diagnosed. A definitive diagnosis of most brain diseases, especially CTE, can only be made after death with examination of the whole brain.
The primary goal of the ASBB is to confirm the existence (and evaluate the prevalence) of CTE in Australian contact sports, and make this information available to the public and to policy makers. The ASBB is committed to research into the long-term effects of concussion on the brain, with a view to developing new means of diagnosis of brain disease during life, and its treatment.
What kind of research might be done?
Research being pursued by the ASBB involves understanding the full impact of sports-related concussion on the human nervous system. We would like to understand the impact of genetic factors, as well as environmental risk factors. In particular we hope to understand the importance of age at first concussion, and the role of the length of playing career. We hope our research will lead to tests to diagnose CTE in living people, and ultimately effective treatments.
We are also developing a clinical research program whereby willing brain donors can participate in clinical research while they are still living. One of our goals is to identify clinical signs and symptoms, brain imaging protocols, and blood tests that will allow CTE to be diagnosed during life. Check back here periodically for updates.