It is only a matter of time before CTE is discovered in the brain of a New Zealand rugby player and once one is found, many will follow.

That is the message from Dr Chris Nowinski, the co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which today launched a collaboration with Auckland University's Centre for Brain Research.

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The brain-bank partnership has been forged with the aim of collecting donors from New Zealand's contact sports community to learn more about the impact of head trauma of the long-term health of those playing the likes of rugby, league and other sports where head knocks are common.

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The focal point for the research is CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy - a degenerative brain disease discovered in the brains of more than 100 deceased NFL players.

"While we like to talk about the sports as slightly different - football players in America have helmets is the big one - the brain doesn't know what's hitting it," Nowinski said. "It all comes down to getting hit in the head and how hard you're getting hit in the hit. In rugby you're getting hit hard in the head frequently."

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Nowinski was gratified to see that New Zealand Rugby had already adopted practices aimed at reducing contact to the head, whether it be offering non-contact versions of the sport until later, or reducing contact in practice.

"In other countries you have to fight for what seem like obvious changes but I've been thrilled to learn New Zealand Rugby already making these changes without us having to ask."

Dementia suffered Neil Wolfe, wearing his All Blacks cap and jacket, at home in New Plymouth. Photo / file
Dementia suffered Neil Wolfe, wearing his All Blacks cap and jacket, at home in New Plymouth. Photo / file

None of the major contact sports codes were represented at the launch, something that did not surprise, or unduly worry, the organisers.

"The All Blacks are the most recognisable rugby team in the world and it is amazing to see the All Black community already supporting the brain bank," Nowinski said.

The Herald has revealed that the families of several former All Blacks have already expressed an interest in donating their loved ones' brains to the centre. The families of Neil Wolfe and Waka Nathan were yesterday represented at the launch, as was former Junior All Black John 'JJ' Williams, who has already committed his brain to the team led by Sir Richard Faull.

Williams travelled up from Taupo for the launch as he said it was a massive opportunity to what out "what is going on with me".

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Williams has been suffering from cognitive difficulties for some years now and wonders whether multiple concussions during his first-class playing career could have contributed to his plight.

Former Junior All Blacks player John Williams, who has been told he is living with a brain injury resulting from his rugby playing. Photo/ file
Former Junior All Blacks player John Williams, who has been told he is living with a brain injury resulting from his rugby playing. Photo/ file

Sir Bryan Williams was a guest speaker and shared his recollections of being knocked out during his career and the lack of treatment or return-to-play protocols that existed in those days.

"New Zealand is special, partly because you have amazing scientists here, and also because the reputation of New Zealand in rugby is global," Nowinski said.

The Boston University brain bank, the largest of its kind looking for CTE in sportsmen and women, has about 14 brains of former rugby players, many of whom have been subsequently found to have CTE.

The first All Black who is found to have died with CTE will raise the awareness of the risks of head trauma in the sport to a far greater level here, just has the discovery of CTE in three former professional league players in Australia has done across the Tasman.

"We'll never have a good understanding of [the potential relationship between] rugby and CTE just by studying brains in America," Nowinski said.

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Dementia expert Professor Richard Faull, with a human brain. Photo/ file
Dementia expert Professor Richard Faull, with a human brain. Photo/ file

While fears rise about the prevalence of CTE in former athletes, the AUT's Dr Patria Hume added a precautionary note, saying we only know about a small portion of the CTE picture.

"We need an 80-plus year study where we recruit children now before they have any head impacts and follow them until death, measuring impacts, diet, alcohol consumption, exercise and other social and environmental factors so we can get the whole picture," Hume said.

"As a biomechanist, I'm almost certain trauma plays a role, but how big? Is it five per cent, is it 95? We just don't know yet."