Former footballers have pledged to donate their brains to Australia's first "brain bank" to help scientists understand the impact of concussions.
Researchers hope Australia’s first Sports Brain Bank will finally shed some light on how many Australians are suffering long-term brain damage from contact sports.
The first Sports Brain Bank outside of the United States has officially opened in Sydney, with six former footballers already signed up to donate their brains to determine if they suffer from a brain condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a regressive brain condition caused by repeated concussions, often following a career in contact sports such as rugby or American football. It can cause depression, memory loss and impulse control disorders.
The family of the late Bryan "Tizza" Taylor, the former Manly rugby player, watched him suffer from CTE for many years before his death. His CTE diagnosis was masked as Alzheimer’s disease.
"One day when I was visiting I knew he'd already forgotten who I was, so out of curiosity I asked him what his name was, and he just shrugged. That’s how bad it had gotten, he didn’t even know his own name," Steven Taylor said.
After his death, the Taylor family decided to send his brain to a concussion research centre in Boston for testing.
That's when they learned he had one of the most advanced cases of CTE researchers had ever seen and he became first diagnosed case in Australia.
“Finally we had an answer, finally we had some closure,” Mr Taylor said.
While the prevalence of CTE is still unknown in Australia, the new Australian Sports Brain Bank plans to change that.
“If we get three brains donated and we find CTE in even one of those, I think that would be a fantastic justification to move forward and expand the operations,” Associate Professor Michael Buckland said.
Six former footballers have already pledged to donate their brains after death, including ex-Wallaby Peter FitzSimons, Ian Roberts, and former St Louis Cardinals player Colin Scotts, the first Australian to be drafted to America's National Football League.
"I have been, I believe, diagnosed with CTE," Mr Scott said.
"Now to realise after I pass away that my brain can actually go and help the next generation of my children and this massive problem of brain disease, that excites me."
The new brain bank in Sydney is a collaboration with the new Concussion Legacy Foundation's Global Brain Bank, which has already examined over 500 donated brains in the US, with over 300 of them diagnosed with CTE.
And with four major contact football codes here in Australia compared to just one in the US, its expected many more cases of CTE will be discovered here.
"We need to find these cases and we need to help these families because this is a terrible disease to live with," Global Brain Bank founder Chris Nowinski said.
After a donor dies, their brain will be harvested within 96 hours and brought here to be dissected. Half of it will then be frozen in liquid nitrogen and stored in a freezer, while the other half will be stored in a preservative liquid.
Researchers are urging anyone who has played contact sport for a prolonged period to consider donating their brains to the cause by registering at www.brainbank.org.au