Whilst rules are in place in sports to protect players from head injuries, collisions are inevitable in both contact and non-contact sports, such as rugby and football. There’s evidence to show that these collisions are more dangerous than they may seem on the surface, with initially invisible effects on long-term brain health. A report found that within English professional rugby, 20.9 concussions were sustained per 1,000 hours of match play, which equates to roughly one per game.
There has been a lot of discussion as to whether a history of concussion leads to an earlier-than-normal onset of dementia symptoms. There has also been much discussion of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is distinct from other forms of neurodegeneration when the brain is assessed post mortem but presents dementia-like symptoms during life. This, along with researching concussion within sports more generally, is something that The Drake Foundation is committed to better understanding.
What is The Drake Foundation?
Established in 2014, The Drake Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation committed to improving the understanding of concussion in sports and its effects on long-term brain health. They bring together the brightest minds from science and sports to facilitate collaborations and research, having already committed over £2 million in research funding and invested in open access educational resources.
Much of their work to-date has focussed on not only improving sports safety, but also gaining an insight into the processes underlying neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia. Their investigation focus spans from current players, to those transitioning out of sport and retirement.
How did it all begin?
The Drake Foundation was founded by businessman and philanthropist James Drake, who was keen to partner with Saracens Rugby Club after their relocation to James’s hometown in London’s Mill Hill. This, along with witnessing some very serious concussion injuries on the sports field in both rugby and football that were not dealt with and somewhat ignored, left James feeling strongly about looking much more closely at concussion, and conducting far more scientific work around this subject.
This inspired him to create The Drake Foundation and James soon partnered with Saracens to set up a study looking at biomarkers in Saracens rugby players in relation to concussion injuries, a study which is still ongoing to this day. Now, four years on, the Foundation has undertaken a number of further studies, launched an open access journal and the Concussion Database, held three UK Sports Concussion Research Symposiums, and seen their first study published.
Today, The Drake Foundation is involved with a number of additional studies, predominantly with retired football and rugby players over the age of 50. These players are assessed using blood samples, extensive testing capturing physical and cognitive capabilities, gathering data on their quality of life and social circumstances, and face-to-face assessments to look for signs of disease. It is hoped these studies will not only assess the effects of sporting careers on long-term brain health but may also shed light on the development of dementia.
Another ongoing study works with 2018-19 Premier League footballers, assessing them in various ways to indicate whether the brain has suffered an injury. By measuring molecules released into saliva and urine after a concussion, researchers hope to understand more about what is happening in the brain after these injuries, and how this may affect long-term brain health.
You can find out more about The Drake Foundation’s concussion research The Drake Foundation's concussion research here.
What’s next for The Drake Foundation?
Looking to 2019 and beyond, The Drake Foundation has extended its funding focus to include basic laboratory-based research into how proteins associated with CTE form in the brain, a project with many overlaps into other dementias. In addition, The Drake Foundation are working to launch studies in recently-retired rugby and football players in order to gain an insight into the physical and mental health changes that occur in these young men and women.