Rhodes University publishes study on brain injury in contact sports

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Example of a contact sport
Example of a contact sport

By Julian Jacobs, PhD Candidate, School of Journalism and Media Studies


Rhodes University researchers published a study in the South African Journal of Psychology last month, based on the doctoral research of former Rhodes Psychology student Dr Diana Zoccola, confirming other studies that demonstrate persistent brain injury effects in association with long-term participation in a contact sport.  

The study was also highlighted in a Sunday Times article, dated 3 March 2019, wherein co-author of the publication Emeritus Professor Ann Shuttleworth-Edwards from the Psychology Department, stated that “the results confirmed what other research had established: long-term participation in rugby leaves players vulnerable to mild traumatic brain injury, resulting in a decline in the critical cognitive functions required for studying and optimal job functioning.”

The results show that South African rugby players have reduced levels of cognitive functioning due to repeated concussions. The study looked at 20 adult male players of club-level rugby without a diagnosis of a concussion during the season compared to 22 non-contact club level sports participants from sporting codes such as running, cycling and cricket. The researchers used a computerised neuropsychological programme to test memory function, motor speed and reaction time before, during and after the rugby season.

Professor Shuttleworth-Edwards warned that even though the results showed brain injury in rugby players was subtle, if not treated adequately, or players were not allowed sufficient recovery time, the trauma could be progressive. The tests did however highlight that the rugby players were worse off than non-rugby players. She added: “It is important that sports concussion is not trivialised and that it is optimally managed by sports organisations.”

The journal article is titled: Signs of cognitive dysfunction in adult rugby players of club level rugby. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0081246319826816