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Jacinda Barclay findings a reminder of sports’ vanilla concussion rhetoric | Alan Pearce 

I never knew Jacinda Barclay personally, but I knew a lot about her and her sporting accomplishments from her aunt, who provided regular updates on where her niece was and in which sports she was excelling, from baseball to American football and Australian rules.

As somebody who heard about her various achievements, it never occurred to me that Jacinda had underlying mental health issues. But in a world where elite athletes are expected to run through walls, show no weakness and give it all for their teammates – as well as being elevated to super-human status through slick marketing and fan perceptions – vulnerabilities are not so easy to reveal.

It is in the context of those expectations that I, a neuroscientist, and other scientists are now also understanding links between contact sports – in which players are expected to be physically tough and mentally stoic but also experience repeated impacts affecting the brain – and its potential effects on mental health.

It is relieving to learn Jacinda did not have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), reassuring us that not every contact-sport athlete will be afflicted with this disease. But for those of us who deal with the science of CTE, the finding was not completely surprising. The science tells us that CTE risk is associated with exposure. The longer one plays contact sports, the greater the risk, not only in acquiring CTE but also the severity of it. Jacinda’s football career started later, comparatively speaking, to those who have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE.

Jacinda Barclay marks the ball during a GWS game last year. Photograph: Jack Thomas/Getty Images

However, some microdamage was found in her brain. Again, for those of us who deal with this issue, this was not surprising. For nearly a decade now we have seen the data – mostly from the United States, which leads the world in this research – in studies showing football players have microdamage to deeper parts of the brain, even in the absence of concussions. How, or if, this contributes to the risk of CTE remains to be seen.

Why the finding from Jacinda’s brain still concerns us, however, is that the science is telling us the microdamage found in the parts of Jacinda’s brain can contribute to mental health decline. This is not to suggest that these findings were causative in Jacinda’s case, but without the generous – and difficult – decision by Jacinda’s family to donate her brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank, we will never be in a position to fully understand. This significant donation helps us to further join the dots.

Moreover, each brain we receive and analyse tells us that more is needed to make sport safer. We cannot just rely on promises from head offices that they are addressing this through “more conservative strategies to address concussion injury”.

Sporting administrators cannot have their cake and eat it too. When concussion injury rates increase due to a rise in reporting, they claim the science has contributed to improved conservative concussion protocols. But equally, when concussion rates decrease, they claim it is their research that has contributed to those very same conservative protocols.

Post-concussion stand-down periods are a good start, but it is not the solution, because the issue is not just about concussion injury. The findings we are seeing, not just with CTE but also the changes in Jacinda’s brain, are the result of repeated impacts to the brain. In other words, exposure.

Sports need to address this issue of repeated exposure, and the time is now. No more vanilla rhetoric on what is already being done to solve the issue. I know first-hand this issue is far from being solved because I continually see retired athletes, in different codes, at all levels and all ages, with ongoing concerns relating to their brain injuries. My most recent research highlights this.

The news of Jacinda Barclay’s findings, like all previously public reports of athletes who have died, gives me mixed feelings. As a neuroscientist, this data helps us gain further understanding because it provides evidence which overrules ongoing doubts and conjecture around the effects contact sport has on brain tissue.

Giants players wear the No 34 in memory of Jacinda Barclay.
Giants players wear the No 34 in memory of Jacinda Barclay. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

But the findings also sadden me because it makes me wonder how many more athletes, at all levels, we will find with damaged brains as a result of activities that are supposed to offer health benefits? As long as funding and resources for this research remain limited, our next generation of players and scientists will be asking the same questions we should be answering now.

While I never knew Jacinda in life, I feel privileged to have known her through my research association with the Australian sports brain bank. I cannot thank her family enough for their valour in donating her brain under the most stressful of circumstances. But her legacy, not only as a champion athlete across three different sports, but also as a pioneer progressing concussion research, will live on.

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