Rugby World Cup winner Thompson to donate brain for CTE research
Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson, who was diagnosed with dementia aged 42, will donate his brain to scientists researching brain trauma.
The Concussion Legacy Project will use his brain to research chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be diagnosed after death.
Thompson said he was pledging his brain “to make the game safer”.
He added: “I’m pledging my brain so the children of the people I love don’t have to go through what I have gone through.
“It’s up to my generation to pledge our brains so researchers can develop better treatments and ways to make the game safer.”
The Concussion Legacy Project is a new brain bank formed by the Concussion Legacy Foundation UK (CLF) and the Jeff Astle Foundation, named after the former England and West Brom striker who died in 2002. A re-examination of Astle’s brain in 2014 found he had died from CTE.
Astle’s daughter Dawn said: “It may be many years before this jigsaw is complete, but by adding each piece, one at a time, it is the only way we shall understand the true picture and so be able to make a better future for others.”
‘It didn’t take long to decide’ – Thompson
Thompson played in every match in England’s winning 2003 World Cup campaign but told the BBC in December 2020 that he cannot remember any of them, and put the memory loss down to frequent head knocks during games and training.
Addressing the change, Thompson called for contact to be taken out of the game for children and added: “We’re going in the right direction but there is still a lot of work to do to make sure the players are safe.”
Former hooker Thompson played 195 times for Northampton Saints before moving to France to play for Brive. He won 73 England caps, and three for the British and Irish Lions, in a nine-year international career.
He first retired in 2007 because of a serious neck injury but was given the all-clear to return, before being forced to retire again in December 2011 with the same problem.
Before speaking out in 2020, Thompson was diagnosed by neurologists at King’s College, London, with early-onset dementia and probable CTE.
Thompson says it did not take long for him and his wife Steph to decide to donate his brain.
“When I had the diagnosis I was all over the place and my family was all over the place,” he explained.
“I came across Dawn and [executive director of CLF UK] Dr Adam [White] and they put everything in place.
“They made me feel like I wasn’t alone. When it came to it, it’s just whose hands do you put that brain into.”
‘We aim to stop CTE by 2040’
Dr Gabriele DeLuca, who will lead the new brain bank, said brain donation would help “develop tailored interventions and treatments” to prevent the “devastating consequences” of CTE.
Researchers will seek to learn how to treat common symptoms of CTE, including problems with thinking, memory, mood and sleep.
Dr Adam White, executive director of CLF UK, said the organisation aims “to stop all new cases of CTE in the next five years and have a cure by 2040”.
CLF UK is encouraging athletes and military veterans to donate their brains to CTE research.
What is CTE?
CTE is the disease discovered by Dr Bennet Omalu in American football player Mike Webster, and the subject of the film Concussion starring Will Smith. In 2011, a group of former American football players started a class action against the NFL and won a settlement worth about $1bn.
CTE can develop when the brain is subjected to numerous small blows or rapid movements – sometimes known as sub-concussions – and is associated with symptoms such as memory loss, depression and progressive dementia.
Sub-concussions cannot be detected on the pitch or in any post-match examination.
The disease can only be diagnosed in a brain after death, but some experts believe if history of exposure is evaluated, it is reasonable to conclude that the risk increases.
It has been found in the brains of dozens of former NFL players, as well as a handful of deceased footballers.
More information about dementia and details of organisations that can help can be found here.