6 Dec 2019

Former rugby player to donate his brain to science to aid researchers

6:27 pm on 6 December 2019

A former top rugby player plans to donate his brain to science when he dies to help researchers discover how concussions and repeated injuries affect the human brain in sport.

MRI Image Of Head Showing Brain

Former junior All Black John - or JJ - Williams spent most of his youth on the rugby field, but he doesn't remember any of it. Now, he's donating his brain to science. Photo: 123RF

New Zealand's only 'brain bank' is asking rugby players and boxers to donate their grey matter for research after they die.

The new research, the Sports Human Brain Bank Initiative, was launched at the University of Auckland this morning.

Former junior All Black John - or JJ - Williams spent most of his youth on the rugby field, but he doesn't remember any of it.

"I can remember certain stuff but ... that's all gone. I had a reunion the other day and didn't know any of the people until they introduced themselves."

He plans to donate his brain to the Sports Human Brain Bank Initiative after he dies.

"I am not the only one and there's a lot of people, a lot of blokes that played rugby, wondering what's going on.

"Until I finally found somebody that answered some of the questions, you suddenly realise that if you don't speak up and you don't donate that nothing will ever happen."

Former All Black Sir Brian Williams experienced his first concussion in 1964.

"I'm 13 years old. A game of rugby league versus Mount Roskill - we're winning. The opposition hasn't been beaten for five or six years. I run low and I step, then bang."

That was the first of many and decades later, he said the long term impact on his brain is now starting to show.

"I am concerned. I forget names and where my keys are."

There are more than 700 brains and 450 samples already stored in the bank. But researchers are searching for donors who have played contact sports like rugby, boxing and soccer.

Richard Faull

Sir Richard Faull. Photo: University of Auckland / CBR

Brain bank director Sir Richard Faull will lead the research. The families of donors will be at the heart of their work, he said.

"They are the most special people in the world. They donate the brains to our brain bank so we can do research on them and as we find out more about the research, we then feed back those results. We feed back what we found to the families."

For a sports crazy country like New Zealand, the research will be challenging, he said.

"There's no sense in getting fit and living longer if you don't know who you are. You've actually gotta look after your brain and your body, so that's what this initiative is all about."

As part of the research, scientists will focus on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy - a mysterious degenerative brain disease, often experienced by people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

Dr Chris Nowinski, the executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston, said there are lots of unanswered questions about the disease.

"We don't know how to treat it; we don't know how to detect it and diagnose it in life; we don't know how to modify, slow or stop the disease, we don't know additional risk factors, additional risk modifiers; we don't know how it starts or what specific combination of head impacts ... sparking the disease and we don't know how we can prevent it outside of eliminating all head impacts."

Researchers hope their work will lead to new treatments for brain diseases.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs