Neuroscientist: more work needed on concussion across sporting levels


There’s no doubt been increased awareness of concussion at all levels of sport, as well as more conversations in the media.

But despite the improvement, there is still some work to do – that’s the belief of La Trobe University neuroscientist Alan Pearce, who thinks the issue isn’t being taken seriously enough across the Australian sporting landscape.

Associate Professor Pearce believes sporting codes are giving the impression that they’re concerned about concussion, but are falling short of tackling the issue.

“There are a lot of positive optics that the major sports are trying to present, for example, the AFL, they’ve obviously tried to clamp down on the head high hits and excessive force, but also the 12-day stand down rule as well,” he says.

“It does provide the appearance that they’re taking this issue seriously, but there’s a couple of things that I think we can still do better.”

He points to inconsistency at the AFL and NBL tribunals.

“When there’s media hype there seems to be a bit of extra judiciary outcomes for certain players, but then after things die down, things start to go back to the way they were, and players are let off for certain reasons,” he says.

“There still hasn’t been any evidence that has been produced for [the 12-day stand down rule] and incidentally, the same so-called evidence has been shown to the NRL who’ve made an 11-day decision; where’s the consistency if they’re using the same evidence?”

A Monash University study last month found that amateur Australian Rules players’ brains were still recovering two weeks after receiving a concussion.

In the 13 athletes tested, evidence was found of reduced blood flow to the brain and a mismatch between oxygen supply and demand in the brain.

There was also residual injury in the white matter of the brain, which is responsible for thinking quickly and doing basic actions like walking without falling.

Dr Alan Pearce (supplied)

All the players had been cleared to return to play after 12 days, validating Pearce’s questioning about why footy codes have settled on their respective rest periods.

It comes after former West Coast Eagle midfielder, Daniel Venables retired due to concussion aged just 23.

When he was 19, Venables suffered severe concussion after his head collided with teammate’s Nathan Vardy’s hip.

Unable to properly work or study, Venables is seeking an estimated $8 million in compensation from the AFL.

A compensations scheme is currently in place for AFL staff members; it is not accessible for players.

Associate Professor Pearce agrees that a scheme should be implemented for players, while also calling for formal acknowledgement of concussion risks in players’ contracts.

“I always get asked, ‘how do we prevent concussions’ and if you’re playing a physical sport you can’t prevent concussions –  it comes with the territory – but what I would like to see is a better acknowledgement of the risks and players who do get drafted are fully made aware of the risks,” he says.

“In terms of general principles we need to look at having some form of clause or acceptance when a player does sign on as an adult, that they’ve made a decision to play this and accept the risks – the same way they would accept the risks on broken bones, ACL injuries, torn muscles.”

He says there isn’t a real acknowledgement playing sports do risk brain injury.

“You do risk a higher increase of dementia or CTE later in life – part of the part of the debate at the moment is that you’ve got some players saying ‘well, we signed up for this’, and then other players say, ‘well, no, we never signed up for dementia’n so I think we need to put it all out there.”

While sporting organisations continue to tweak their concussion protocols, he believes the media also has a responsibility to educate and inform.

Former St. Kilda player and number one draft pick Paddy McCartin made his AFL comeback this season with Sydney, after suffering eight instances of concussion.

After his comeback was announced, the lack of concern in the media was apparent; rather, stories about McCartin were almost entirely positive.

“I’m not really sure why it was all sunshine and rainbows, it was all very positive – I guess any athlete that comes back is presented as this feel-good story and if someone was going to put something forward that there is a concern, well, you’re just a Debbie Downer.”” Associate Professor Pearce said.

“I don’t really know why there wasn’t any cautionary articles put forward, even if it was by journalists who are not AFL accredited.”