An extensive research project into concussion will explore whether repeated head trauma can lead to neurological problems later in life.

The research, conducted by the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation (ICHIRF), centres on jockeys, both amateur and professional.

The long-term project, launched on 21 January, aims to discover whether retired sportsmen and women have increased incidence, or suffer an earlier onset, of neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

“Through impartial, objective analysis of a significant pool of data, we will seek to establish whether there is any correlation between repeated concussion and long-term damage to the brain,” ICHIRF medical director and lead researcher Dr Michael Turner told H&H.

“We’re not so interested in what happens when you hit the ground, but how you’re coping 20, 30 and 40 years after the concussion.”

The study will be inclusive of all sports where concussion is a recognised risk, but as horseracing has the highest recorded rates of concussion, the initial screening process will be on more than 200 retired jockeys living in the UK, Ireland and France.

Former champion National Hunt jockey Richard Dunwoody is one of the first volunteers for the study.

“As professional jockeys, with a fall every 14 rides on average, it was accepted that we would suffer concussion, but we gave little thought as to what the long-term effects of repetitive head injuries would be,” he told H&H. “Jockeys will find it very useful and I imagine a lot will sign up.”

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Fellow former champion jockeys AP McCoy, Peter Scudamore, John Francome and Stan Mellor will be joining Richard in the screening. They will undergo MRI scanning, blood tests and full behavioural analysis as part of the project.

The research will then expand to include riders from other equestrian disciplines, as well as members of the public who have never been concussed.

“The temptation is just to have lots of jump jockeys, but that skews your data if you only look at one group,” said Dr Turner.

“Members of the public are crucial to our success as we need a cohort of people of similar age, gender and weight to compare to the group who have been concussed.”

Concussion in women

As well as exploring the long-term effects of concussion, researchers hope the study will reveal an insight into the differences in concussion between men and women.

Last year (news, 17 September 2015), research carried out by the University of Michigan found that women reported, on average, one-and-a-half times more symptoms of concussion than men.

“The point-to-point demographic is 50/50 men to women riders,”  Dr Turner said.

“When you separate men and women you see there’s quite a difference — men fall more often than women. But women sustain concussion four times more often than men.

“We need women riders to take part in the research as we are really interested to find out why that is.”

The study will cost £2m in total for the jockeys and controls to be screened. Funding support for the project has come from a range of sources, including Horse & Hound’s charity of the year the Injured Jockeys Fund (IJF), Godolphin and the National Football League in the USA, as well as private backers.

The ICHIRF hopes to have more than 20,000 people signing up to participate in the research in its first year. The study is set to continue for more than 10 years and preliminary results are expected in three years.

“As we go along the knowledge base will increase,” said Dr Turner. “We will hopefully see that there is a genetic marker for the problem [degenerative disorders that can be brought on by concussion], so you can see if you have a high risk. It’s not about banning anything, but giving people a clear understanding of what the long-term risk is.”

Take part in the research

To participate in the study, volunteers should indicate an interest by completing a registration form at www.concussioninsport.org

Once this has been logged, the individual will be offered the opportunity to complete an online questionnaire on an annual basis.

From all the volunteers who complete the online questionnaire, a number will be invited to attend a detailed screening in London — the same screening that is being carried out on the jockeys.

The cost of screening will be covered by ICHIRF and the project will continue to monitor the progress of all participants —questionnaire only and screened individuals — over subsequent years.

‘People have gone from denial to panic’

Former jockey Brough Scott, chairman of the IJF and an ICHIRF director, has been tested as part of the research. He told H&H the study was “essential”.

“People have gone from denial to panic [regarding the effects of concussion],” he said. “What we don’t have is any proper, peer-reviewed research on a lot of people who have been concussed.

“Jockeys are going to get concussed so we need to know what happens. You need to know the
risks so you can make a decision — you can’t pretend you can eliminate the risks.”

H&H is supporting the IJF as it’s charity of the year 2016. To find out more and make donation click here.

Ref: H&H 29/01/2016