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Concussion in sport

The Australian Football League and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health today announced the first step in a unique collaborative partnership for scientific research into concussion and mild traumatic brain injury.

Utilising the latest imaging technology and other advanced scientific techniques, and drawing on global experts in the field, research projects will study current and former AFL players to gain a greater understanding of concussion, its causes and its longer term impacts.

In the lead-up to the first Concussion in Football Conference to be held in Australia, the Florey Institute and the AFL joined forces in seeking $3 million in third party funding support to enable the full scope of planned research to proceed.

The collaboration is the first of its kind and plans to work over the next 5-10 years to enhance the current range of projects to:

  • attract significant funding to enable a coordinated and comprehensive research program;
  • improve screening processes to identify players at risk of longer term issues; and
  • enhance decision-making about concussed players returning to play or training.

AFL Deputy CEO, Gillon McLachlan said the partnership would build on the proactive efforts of the AFL over many years to increase knowledge and awareness of concussion issues and, more recently, to modify the rules of the game to better protect the head and neck of players.

“The AFL is proud to partner with the Florey, one of the world’s leading brain research institutes, to attract funding towards this important field of research,” Mr McLachlan said. “Our goal is to achieve a better scientific understanding of concussion and its longer term effects – an issue of increasing concern for sportspeople at elite and sub-elite levels everywhere.”

Professor Graeme Jackson, neurologist and senior deputy director of the Florey Institute, said he wanted to create a Centre of Excellence which utilised cutting edge MRI imaging technology and involved some of the world’s most experienced medical practitioners and researchers in the field. This research would build on the MRI imaging pilot which has been undertaken in recent seasons with AFL players.

“Neuroscience is the final frontier in medical research and these scientific studies will underpin the future of medicine as we increase our knowledge and understanding of the human brain and the potential longer term effects of trauma,” Professor Jackson said.

Mr McLachlan said the AFL believed concussion was a key health and welfare issue for players that required a measured, informed and scientific approach.

“There has been a lot of speculation about concussion and its longer term effects on players, much of it arising from the emergence of post mortem diagnoses of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players in the United States who had apparently been subject to repeated hits to the head during their careers.

“Although Australian football is played in a markedly different manner, the concern of past and present AFL players is understandable and that is why the AFL is stepping up its existing research efforts through this ground-breaking scientific partnership with the Florey Institute.”

The AFL will bring its current concussion research projects under the umbrella of the Florey Institute partnership to ensure they are undertaken in a way that complements the overarching scientific approach, and will also commit a further $100,000 to the partnership.

Professor Jackson said that significant third party funding was also being sought, with the full scope of planned research projects requiring an initial $3 million investment, and a further $1.5 million in ongoing funding.

“We are confident of attracting third party financial support for these efforts because the potential impacts of mild traumatic brain injury extend across a range of sports and beyond,” Professor Jackson said.

"For five years we have been conducting advanced MRI studies on AFL players who have taken a knock to the head. With this experience in mind, we recognise the benefits of establishing a formal, long-term research program to assess the impact of concussion on the health of players. Ultimately, we want to be able to offer informed advice to mums, dads and junior football players all the way through to those athletes at the top of their game at league level." 

A Board of Management (responsible for funding and partnership strategy) and a separate Scientific Committee (responsible for structuring research and projects) have been established for the Concussion Collaborative – both consisting of representatives of the AFL and the Florey Institute.

The Scientific Committee includes many of the world’s foremost experts in concussion such as Professor Paul McCrory, Dr Michael Makdissi and Associate Professor Gavin Davis as well as AFL Medical Directors such as Dr Peter Harcourt, Dr Harry Unglik and Dr Andrew Daff from the AFL Players Association.

The AFL-Florey Concussion Collaborative

The vision of the AFL-Florey Concussion Collaborative is to:

  • establish a world leading research program on concussion and mild traumatic brain injury (TBI);
  • improve the understanding of concussion and mild TBI, particularly in relation to pathophysiology, methods for accurately accessing brain function and identifying risk factors for poor outcome;
  • translate research into best practice clinical management guidelines to protect the health and well-being of all people who suffer concussion or mild TBI, especially from participation sport; and
  • provide leadership on education and development of community prevention and safety programs in all sport or activities with a risk of TBI.

Its objectives are:

  • To increase the biological understanding of concussive or mild TBI injuries through innovative neuroimaging strategies;
  • Through new understandings, improve the clinical assessment of injury severity to enhance management strategies;
  • Determine the prevalence and risk factors for chronic clinical, psychiatric and cognitive symptoms in a cohort of retired athletes with exposure to acute TBI, and using this information to inform the management of acute injury to prevent such complications;
  • Improve the understanding of prevention strategies and management processes for concussion and mild TBI; and
  • Develop effective strategies to apply recommended guidelines to community best practice.

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