Athletes sign up to donate their brains to NZ's new 'brain bank' initiative after they die

The Sports Human Brain Bank Initiative was launched in Auckland today, ushering in a new era in concussion research as New Zealand joins the mission to understand the effects of traumatic brain injuries in sport.

That impact of traumatic brain injury through sport has already been felt by former Junior All Black JJ Williams, who pledged his brain for future study.

“Our age group, if we don't start now they'll have no research to study, that's why I did it,” he said.

New Zealand's human brain bank director Sir Richard Faull is happy to have extended his programme to the sporting realm.

“Suddenly we are realising, putting right at the front, that brain injuries due to sports activities is not good," he said. 

“So what this is going to be about is having people donate brains to us after they die so we can find out what the science is and feed that back to the young people before they get the impact."

In the last decade, concussion and its links to the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE has occupied the grey area between player welfare and economic imperative.

It's a move that is long overdue, said Dr Chris Novinsky of the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, which has found more than 400 cases of CTE in deceased American athletes.

“This was first seen in boxers and then it was seen in American football players and every other sport said, ‘That’s their problem, we don’t have it’. We’ve now found it in just about every other sport and so it’s time for us to come together and acknowledge this is real,” Dr Novinsky said.

One high-profile former player, Ben Afeaki, deals with the ongoing issues of concussion daily, having been forced to retire almost five years ago.

He believes the Sports Human Brain Bank can only help foster greater understanding.

I’ll definitely donate what’s left of my one [brain], and some of the other players will probably be the same,” he said.

“There's been a lot of effort into trying to reduce concussion and the players are more aware of it and they are pulling themselves out, too, which is encouraged so it's positive all round.”