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Brain injury

Drake Foundation: ‘Research can protect players and enable change’

CEO Lauren Pulling tells NR Times of the Foundation’s commitment to protecting player welfare through better understanding the impact of injury

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A professional footballer balances a football on his head marking the release of a study into footballers risk of dementia

As one of the first organisations to recognise and react to the urgent need to address head injury in sport, The Drake Foundation has become a central player in the fast-developing debate over how to best protect players at all levels from the devastating later-life impact of neurodegenerative disease. 

Established by philanthropist James Drake in 2014, in the wake of an injury to then-Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Hugo Lloris during which he was knocked unconscious during a match but was allowed to carry in playing, the organisation is committed to delivering the research which will hold the key to making change. 

The Foundation has been behind some of the most significant research projects to date in uncovering the impact of head injury in sport, including the Drake Rugby Biomarker Study, the first of its kind to make use of advanced neuroimaging.  

The landmark BRAIN and HEADING projects – which investigate the impact of concussion in former players aged 50 and over in rugby and football respectively – are both helping to shed new light on links to neurodegenerative disease. 

Over £2million has already been invested in research by the Foundation, which describes itself as being at the intersection between sports, science and society, to not only improve sports player welfare but also to advance knowledge and understanding of the brain and brain diseases in sport and across society as a whole. 

Further pioneering projects are now underway, including one with retired rugby players from the pre-professional era, the findings of which could help shape the adaptations needed to properly protect players in the game in its current form. 

And the need for such research is vital in helping to understand what happens in players’ brains so action can be taken to protect current and future players, says Lauren Pulling, CEO of The Drake Foundation. 

“Over the last couple of years we’ve really seen the conversation on this topic shift and more people are now invested in it, it’s not just a concern for retired players who were playing decades ago, it’s a very real concern for everyone whether they’re a youth player now, whether they’ve recently retired from elite sport or whether they’re an amateur player,” she tells NR Times. 

“It’s now become a conversation everyone is involved in so it’s really critical we have more research and ongoing research in this area to really pinpoint exactly what is happening in the brain, but alongside that so that sports governing bodies can take real action as well. 

“While it’s going to take a while to build the full picture of what’s happening in the brain, we need to be making significant changes to pre-emptively and universally reduce players’ exposure to head impacts.

“When you know more what the actual cause is you can target that, which will help governing bodies with any protocol changes to make sport safer.”

Already, the Foundation’s research has produced some worrying findings, with its Rugby Biomarker Study revealing that almost a quarter – 23 per cent – of current rugby players sampled had abnormalities in white matter of vasculature of their brain. 

While some moves are being made to tackle the issue of player safety, based on the research that exists to date – including the limit on full-contact training in rugby and restriction on high-force heading in football training – the Foundation is keen to see more action taken, backed by enforceable laws from governing bodies. 

“I think for players to feel safe and youth players going into the game to feel safe, there need to be universal enforced law changes that minimise their cumulative exposure to head impacts, not just in the game but in training as well,” says Lauren. 

“We want to see more from sports governing bodies. We’re really pleased to see recent changes to guidelines like the limit on full contact training in rugby and guidance to reduce heading in football in training in particular – but we’d question whether it could go even further.

“I think we need to stop being tentative and go for enforced law changes rather than guidance.”

The need for such action is becoming ever-more apparent, with players of all levels speaking out about their concerns around participation. 

“We did some market research at the beginning of this year with amateur players and the parents of youth players in both football and rugby, the results of that were really concerning,” says Lauren. 

“Two thirds of parents and amateur rugby players were concerned about the long-term impact of the sport on their brain health around half of parents and players in football wanted to see a reduction in heading. 

“Seeing that people are that concerned, and that’s what the attitude is not just in elite sport but in the amateur grassroots game, that tell us action needs to be taken before not just more players are affected, but also for the future of the game. 

“If people are dropping out then what does the future of sport look like? So I think we need to make some big changes to protect the players and the game so we don’t see another generation of this happening.”

In addition to its ongoing research, the Foundation also sees collaboration as being key to change being made around head injury in sport. Its symposium meeting brings together researchers, sports governing bodies, medical experts and other stakeholders in the debate to continue to drive the issue forward. 

“There’s definitely a shift to everyone moving towards the same direction now, what we’re doing with our symposium is trying to unite that even more,” says Lauren. 

“With COVID it’s been tricky to get everyone in a room and talk about the direction we’re going in, but with our symposium this year there will be a renewed focus on everyone going in the same direction, taking a united approach to tackling this issue. 

“I think there’s likely more that could be done and that’s something that we are always on the lookout for. I think it will be interesting to see in light of the Government inquiry the effect that will have on uniting all the stakeholders in this field.”

Going forward, in addition to the research and collaboration, technology is playing in increasingly central role in the issue. In addition to the advanced neuroimaging which is helping The Drake Foundation in its research, innovations including a mouthguard with a sensor which can deliver real-time information to medical teams on the sidelines, are helping to provide quantifiable statistics which will help to inform research further still. 

“Technology has a huge role to play in it all, in the seven years The Drake Foundation has been in this field, technology has advanced hugely,” says Lauren.

“The advanced neuroimaging that was used in the Drake Rugby Biomarker Study wasn’t part of the original proposal for that study nearly seven years ago, it has been brought along as the study progressed and I think that could turn into a really valuable tool, looking at changes to microstructures to the brain that can’t be picked up by standard MRI. 

“What we don’t know at the moment are the long-term changes to white matter or vasculature so that will be a really interesting one to follow over the next few years, there is no short cut there so we need longitudinal studies using advanced neuroimaging. 

“And on the sensor side, I think big data has done a lot, not just in this field but in science and medicine, so I think the more data we can gather can only be a good thing. 

“What is important is how the data is then used whether it’s all put into one big data set, can we use that as a common data set, is the data comparable across different studies and sports, that will be an interesting one to see over the coming years.” 

Inpatient rehab

Brain injury survivor fundraises for The Walton Centre

Karen Parry’s running club is fundraising for the specialist centre which saved her life

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A woman whose life was saved by The Walton Centre after an accident at home has inspired a fundraising initiative on behalf of the nationally-renowned specialist centre.

In December last year, Karen Parry was making her way up to bed when she fell down the stairs, hitting her head on the hall floor. 

Karen, from Prescot, was rushed to the Aintree Trauma Unit before being transferred to the neighbouring Walton Centre for life-saving brain surgery. 

“It was one of the most terrifying nights of my life,” recalls Karen’s husband, Gavin. 

“Karen was badly hurt, but I didn’t realise how badly until I was at The Walton Centre speaking to the anaesthetist about the emergency surgery she was going to have. 

“Mr Rasheed Zakaria and his surgical team saved Karen’s life, but they also took the time to calmly and compassionately explain Karen’s condition to me along with the steps they would be taking.”

Karen made it through the surgery at the pioneering Walton Centre and was put in a medically-induced coma to allow her brain to recover enough to be woken up later.

“I was visiting Karen in ICU every day with special permission due to the severity of Karen’s condition,” Gavin continues. 

“When I came in the day she was being brought out of her coma, I found her dedicated nurse brushing her hair, she said it was because removing the tangles would have hurt her when she was awake. 

“I thought this was very kind and thoughtful. They cared so well for her, it was outstanding.”

The 52-year-old spent over two weeks in ICU, having further corrective procedures before moving to a ward to recover further – spending Christmas in hospital.

Gavin said: “Karen had been assisted into the chair at the side of her bed for our visit, which was great to see. 

“At this stage Karen was too weak to spend much much more than half an hour sat upright and we were all really happy to be with each other.

“It was a lovely visit and we were sad to leave. As on any other day the staff were busy but lovely and kind.”

Then March this year, Karen was able to return home, after receiving rehabilitation with the Cheshire and Merseyside Rehab Network, hosted by The Walton Centre.

“Karen was so determined to get better, she’s so tough,” said Gavin.

“She kept getting stronger. The Walton Centre continued to support her. Mr Zakaria, the neurosurgeon who saved her life, sent a detailed letter to her GP to ensure they knew exactly how to support Karen when she did come home.”

While Karen was in hospital, her local running club Knowsley Harriers nominated The Walton Centre Charity as their charity of the year. 

Karen is Treasurer of the club and an avid running coach. Each month the club hosts ‘The Walton Centre Charity’ 5km run, which encourages members and non-members to donate to the charity. 

So far they have raised nearly £900 this year, and will continue to do so for the rest of 2022.

Gavin added: “The club has a number of links to the hospital, from other members who have previously been looked after there. We were delighted when they picked The Walton Centre Charity. 

“This was a very frightening time for my son and myself and very much a rollercoaster ride of emotions explained to us when Karen entered the unit. 

“Sadly, Karen remembers very little of her time in The Walton Centre but I have reminded her of the wonderful care which she has received.

“The nurses, doctors and therapy staff are truly inspirational, not only for their professionalism and incredible skills as medical practitioners but they also have the kind of qualities that cannot be taught in a classroom – care, love, kindness, understanding and humanity – they have them in abundance.”

Karen said: “Sadly, I remember little about my time in The Walton Centre due to the nature of my head injury. Gav has spoken to me at length about the wonderful people that cared for me there. I would just like to thank them all from the bottom of my heart.”

To donate to the fundraising appeal, visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/khac2022

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Brain injury

Fact-finding tour helps creation of ABI Strategy

Chris Bryant MP and UKABIF visit three key neuro-rehab sites nationally

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Efforts to gather information which will help in the creation of the new Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Strategy have been boosted through Chris Bryant MP’s visits to key neuro-rehabilitation sites around the country. 

The MP – chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on ABI, who has been instrumental in securing the go-ahead from the Government to create the Strategy – visited sites in Newcastle, Sheffield and Birmingham to gain greater insight into what provision exists and what more is needed. 

The Strategy has been hailed as being of vital importance in helping to support people living with brain injury and to help level the disparity in provision across the country.

Chris – also co-chair of the ABI Strategy Programme Board – visited Walkergate Park in Newcastle with UKABIF’s chief executive, Chloe Hayward, who is co-chair of the Strategy’s Patient and Public Voice Reference Group. 

The Tyneside centre provides neuro-rehabilitation and neuropsychiatry services for adults with a disability caused by injury or disease affecting the brain or spinal cord.

They met with staff and patients at the 64-bed centre, learning about the range of rehabilitation offered by its specialist neuro-rehab team, and the equipment and technology available to help people affected by ABI to live as independently as possible.

In Sheffield, they visited Steps rehabilitation centre, which provides 23 rooms for residential rehabilitation, and offers everything from hydrotherapy to music therapy, alongside the latest technology to benefit patients’ lives. 

On their trip to Birmingham Women and Children’s Hospital, to see what rehabilitation services are available for children, Chris met with staff, patients and families on a tour of the city centre hospital and also spoke with The Child Brain Injury Trust.

At each location, staff and patients were given the opportunity to say what they thought was needed to improve the lives of those living with ABI.

“These visits have been hugely helpful as we look to gather information and first hand views from people working in ABI neuro-rehabilitation,” said Chris, whose Private Members’ Bill led to the Government granting approval for the creation of the ABI Strategy. 

“If the ABI Strategy is to be fit for purpose, we need to know what is currently working, but perhaps more importantly, what isn’t working in order to ensure the needs of people with an ABI are properly addressed.

“I want to say a huge thank you to everyone we met for sharing their experiences for us to consider as we take the Strategy forward.

Chloe Hayward said: “Being able to see and speak to both staff and patients means we have real life experiences from people. 

“As co-chair of the Strategy’s Patient and Public Voice Reference Group, I want to make sure patients’ views are taken into consideration when the Strategy is being established.”

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Brain injury

New therapy reduces veteran headaches after brain injury

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Headache also shown to have positive impact on PTSD symptoms

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The first therapy to be developed specifically for post-traumatic headaches significantly reduced related disability in veterans following a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a study has revealed. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Headache (CBTH) was also shown to reduce co-occurring symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comparably to a gold-standard PTSD treatment.

Furthermore, the therapy was shown to be appealing to patients with low drop-out rates, and is easy for therapists to learn and deliver, increasing its potential to be widely used and to improve the lives of servicemen and women and veterans globally. 

CBTH, which uses cognitive behavioural therapy concepts to reduce headache disability and improve mood, includes key components such as relaxation, setting goals for activities patients want to resume, and planning for those situations.

“We are excited by this development in the treatment of post-traumatic headache, which along with TBI is poorly understood and for which treatment options are so limited,” said Dr Don McGeary, associate professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio). 

“To find the first major treatment success for post-traumatic headache, which is arguably the most debilitating symptom of TBI, and that the treatment also significantly reduces co-morbid PTSD symptoms, is a major breakthrough.”

Both TBI and PTSD are prevalent in post-9/11 military conflicts, and the two conditions commonly occur together. 

Post-traumatic headaches, or headaches that develop or worsen following a head or neck injury, become chronic and debilitating in a large percentage of those who experience a TBI such as a concussion, inhibiting their ability to engage in the activities of daily life. 

When PTSD is co-occurring, it can worsen the headaches and make them more difficult to treat.

Effective treatments exist for PTSD but not for post-traumatic headache, which along with TBI, scientists are still working to understand. 

Migraine medications commonly used to alleviate the headache pain do not relieve related disability. They also often have unwanted side effects, and their overuse can worsen headaches.

In the study, Dr McGeary and his team developed CBTH by modifying a psychotherapy for migraine headaches. They evaluated its efficacy with co-occurring post-traumatic headache and PTSD symptoms.

The study was conducted at the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System. 

Participants had clinically significant PTSD symptoms and headaches persisting more than three months following a TBI. They were randomly assigned to receive either CBTH, a leading PTSD treatment called Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), or the usual care provided at the VA Polytrauma Center.

At the end of treatment, researchers found that, compared to usual care, those receiving CBTH reported significant reductions in disability and in negative impact on function and quality of daily life. 

They also showed improvement in PTSD symptoms comparable to the group that received CPT. All of these treatment gains were maintained six months after treatment completion.

CPT, on the other hand, led to significant and lasting improvements in PTSD symptoms, but on its own did not improve headache disability. 

“This was a surprise,” said Dr McGeary. 

“If theories about PTSD driving post-traumatic headache are correct, you’d expect CPT to help both PTSD and headache. Our findings call that into question.”

Interestingly, CBTH did not reduce headache intensity or frequency compared to usual care. 

Dr McGeary said its dramatic reductions on negative life impact are likely due to its building patients’ confidence that they could control or manage their headaches, a concept known as “self-efficacy.” 

That sense of control was key to helping patients “get their lives back,” he said.

“If you can improve a person’s belief that they can control their headache, they function better,” Dr McGeary said. 

“That’s because, when dealing with a long-term, disabling pain condition, people make decisions about whether they’re going to actively engage in any kind of activity, especially if the activity exacerbates the pain condition. 

“They make those decisions based on their perceptions of their ability to handle their pain.”

In comparison to CPT, CBTH requires fewer and shorter therapy sessions—typically eight sessions of 30-45 minutes each. CPT typically involves 12 sessions lasting 60-90 minutes each.

CBTH requires only two hours to train clinicians to deliver the therapy, compared to CPT, a complex treatment that requires significant training and acquired skill. 

The research team now hope to broaden their study to be as representative as possible. 

Dr McGeary said: “We need more women, more racial and ethnic diversity, veterans as well as active military of different branches, with varying comorbidities, in different geographic regions attached to different hospitals and medical systems because we’re comparing to usual care.”

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