Research suggests increased risk of MND in international rugby players

Research published this week has suggested that former international rugby players may have an increased risk of developing motor neuron disease (MND). 

Following the findings, MND Scotland has been asked to convene an expert group to provide advice to Scottish Rugby and the Brain Health Clinic at BT Murryfield, to look at the immediate questions and research priorities raised by this study.  

The new research, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, looked back at the health outcomes of former Scottish international rugby players – examining their health records and death certificates.   

The researchers found that these international-level rugby players were more likely to have a neurodegenerative disease, compared to the general population, estimating the increase in risk as two-fold for dementia and 15-fold for MND. 

Led by consultant neuropathologist Prof Willie Stewart, Honorary Professor at the University of Glasgow, the research team compared health outcomes among 412 male, Scottish, former international rugby players and over 1,200 similar individuals from the general population.  

In their previous findings, the research team reported on neurodegenerative risk among former professional footballers, and this study is a continuation of this research into brain health outcomes among former contact sports athletes.  

Dr Jane Haley, Director of Research at MND Scotland, said:  

“We welcome this very interesting piece of research. While the initial results do seem concerning, the study is based on a small sample size which means that, because MND is a relatively uncommon condition, larger studies will be needed to determine whether this result can be confirmed more widely. 

“A connection between elite level sports and MND has been proposed before, but this is the first time an increased risk has been indicated for rugby players. The reasons for these apparent increases are not yet known and need to be explored further. As a charity we are committed to supporting ongoing research into MND to increase our knowledge of the disease, and to help lead us to the discovery of meaningful treatments.”  

The study also highlights the importance of monitoring brain health in professional athletes and MND Scotland is working with partners to identify the research questions and priorities that need to be addressed.  

Dr Haley said: “Following these results MND Scotland will be working closely with Prof Stewart, Scottish Rugby and the Brain Health Clinic at BT Murrayfield, to form an advisory group of MND professionals. This will try to identify the questions and research that needs to be addressed in this area.” 

If you have further questions about this research, please download our frequently asked questions.  

To continue supporting vital MND research across Scotland you can donate to MND Scotland today. 

The paper ‘Neurodegenerative disease risk among former international rugby union players.’ is published in Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, and also includes funding from The US National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and NHS Research Scotland.  

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