Research is urgently needed into the cumulative effects of head trauma over long periods, according to articles released online today by the Medical Journal of Australia.
The call comes amidst growing media concern about the risks of concussion in sport following postmortem evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American National Football League players who suffered concussions while playing.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease with similar symptoms to those of early-onset dementia.
However, Professor Andrew Kaye, head of the University of Melbourne's Department of Surgery, and Associate Professor Paul McCrory, a neurologist with the Melbourne Brain Centre, wrote that the recent media interest in CTE was based on only a "handful of case reports".
"Critically, the detection of pathological change in the brains of former athletes does not necessarily support a causal relationship with their sporting careers or history of head impacts", they wrote.
Unfortunately, the debate about how to manage concussion in sport had largely been played out in the news media rather than through scientific journals, they added.
"Complex issues have been oversimplified and distorted, causing significant alarm over putative long-term risks and concern over how an acute injury should be managed."
The authors called for the issues to be "tested in the cold light of scientific peer review".
In another article, Dr Frederic Gilbert, of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at the University of Tasmania, and Dr Bradley Partridge, from the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research, wrote that there was a need for standardised methods to track an athlete's playing history and head injuries, allowing comparisons across cohorts.
"The implementation of such research in Australia would require the cooperation of the major football codes to obtain sufficient numbers of footballers to provide meaningful results about the sequelae of head injuries", they wrote.
These authors said the US postmortem evidence of CTE raised major concerns about possible long-term neurological damage, cognitive impairment and mental health problems in players of these sports, as they also frequently sustain concussions.
ABC TV's Four Corners will be running a program on these issues tonight (Monday 14th May).
Media: Dr Bradley Partridge 0421 047 313
The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.