We’ve been making noise about this issue for some time; we’re really glad the industry is finally taking notice.
Dr Michael Grey is making waves in the sports world with his research into the link between concussion and dementia. We speak to Michael about the project, funding and why more female athletes should sign up.
Michael, tell us about SCORES
I lead the SCORES project here at UEA, which stands for Screening Cognitive Outcomes after Repetitive head impact Exposure in Sport.
A study published by the University of Glasgow showed there is a clear link between football and dementia, and we think this is due to repeated heading of the ball. But this study investigated medical records after death – the SCORES project is about living people.
We do not know when players start to show signs of the disease. To answer this question we need to track changes in cognitive health over time. SCORES is unique because our participants do not have to come to the lab – the study is conducted online through our website. Ours also differs from other studies in this area as our focus is on both women and men who play the game at the professional, amateur and recreational levels.
What will the research entail?
We’re using cutting-edge technology to monitor ex-professional, amateur and recreational level footballers—men and women—as they age.
By tracking their brain health over time using online brain assessments, we aim to pick up signs of neurodegeneration that are identifiable long before any memory problems or other noticeable symptoms become apparent.
And we hope to follow some of these footballers for many years to come.
How will your research make an impact?
A career of playing sport will have positive cardiovascular effects that are beneficial to brain health. However, this is countered by the neurodegeneration associated with many minor sub-concussive injuries. The data obtained with the SCORES study will allow us to understand the interplay between these positive and negative effects on brain health as people age.
We can’t reverse the impact that heading the ball might have already had for former players, but by tracking their cognitive health, we can pick up on any signs that need further investigation, and signpost them to seek clinical assessment, care and support much earlier than normal.
You’ve spoken recently about the importance of female players signing up, why is that?
We think female players may be at even greater risk of developing sport-related dementia than male players.
The vast majority of research in this field has been restricted to male athletes and little is known about the different impact that repetitive heading of the ball could have on female players.
So it’s vital that former female players—amateur and professional—step forward to take part in the study.
What are your thoughts on the PFA’s decision to create a taskforce examining this issue?
We have been making noise about this issue for some time, so we’re really glad the industry is finally taking notice. Six years ago we would not even be having this discussion!
The PFA taskforce will be important, but it’s crucial that we keep up the momentum, to ensure that our independent research can help inform decisions to protect players, past and future, amateur and professional.
We are lucky to have some great names backing us, including former Norwich City stars Iwan Roberts and Jeremy Goss, and Crystal Palace legend Mark Bright. We’re keen to get more current and ex-players on board to drive this forward.
We are also very pleased to be working with the League Manager’s Association (LMA) as many of their members played the game at a high level. The LMA has a long tradition of supporting both the game and the wellbeing of its members and their families.
How can people support the project?
Each month we sadly hear of another pro-footballer diagnosed with, or worse still, passing away with dementia. And we now know the families of five of the English 1966 World Cup winning team have been affected by this terrible disease. Which is why this research is so crucial.
We urgently need former professional and amateur footballers to take part in the study, and in particular we need more female players to join us. To get involved visit our project website at www.scoresproject.org where you can register to participate and start doing the brain health assessments that very day.
We currently only have the funding for 6 months of this research. We need to raise £1 million to continue this national study for ten years. Your gift will directly fund the equipment, assessments, software development, and scientists’ time needed to make this research possible.
To support the SCORES project, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Grey is part of an expert team of researchers at UEA, each with their own specialisations, collaborating to transform dementia diagnosis, prevention, treatment and care. Pictured left to right above are Prof Anne Marie Minihane, specialism: nutrigenetics, nutrition and preventive medicine; Dr Michael Grey, specialism: brain injury and sport-related neurodegeneration; Dr Alpar Lazar, specialism: human sleep and circadian rhythmicity in brain health; Prof Michael Hornberger, specialism: early diagnosis, progression tracking and symptom management.