Veteran jockey Dale Spriggs who is suffering the impacts of 20 or more concussions has pledged his brain to The Australian Sports Brain Bank run by the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Centre and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
Now retired, Dale suffered countless falls and collisions in a 35-year career that saw him ride nearly 3,000 winners from 25,000 starts.
“It’s not just the falls that do damage,” he says. “It’s common for a jockey to suffer a head knock when a horse rears its head back in the barrier before a race. I’ve experienced that more times that I care to remember.
"You are on a 500-kilo horse in a confined space," he told ABC TV's 7.30.
The first signs of mood and memory changes came after a bone-crunching fall at Scone in October 2014 that ended his long career in horseracing.
I knew there was something not right with my head when I returned to riding after my last concussion.
“I knew there was something not right with my head when I returned to riding after my last concussion. But like all my other injuries, I returned to the saddle knowing that something was amiss,” says Dale who sometimes has 'mumbling speech' and feels anxious and depressed.
“The last 12 months of my career I could tell my thinking wasn’t the same as it was. I couldn’t make split second decisions and my reactions weren’t as fast as it used to be.”
Today, he lives with a raft of symptoms typical of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated head blows, including concussions—memory loss, insomnia, mood swings, and chronic headaches.
In 2014, a national survey of jockeys by the Australian Jockeys’ Association revealed that 79 percent of jockeys had had at least one concussion in their career and a quarter (25 percent) had had four or more during their time in racing.
More than one in five (22 percent) said they’d had a concussion in the past two years. The survey also revealed that concussions were more common among females and apprentice jockeys.
“We’ve see 880 deaths in horse racing since 1850,” says AJA chief executive Paul Innes. “Falling from or being hit by a 500 kilogram race horse traveling at 50 kilometres per hour is a risk jockeys take on a daily basis.”
During his tenure, Mr Innes, who has led the AJA since 2001, has negotiated health, safety and financial reforms to benefit Australia’s jockeys, including public liability insurance, superannuation and the establishment of the National Jockeys Trust to assist injured jockeys and their families.
Athletes in contact sports, like boxing, rugby union, rugby league or impact sports such as soccer, diving and horse racing may be vulnerable.
CTE can only be diagnosed at autopsy, so high-profile sportsmen like Dale Spriggs who are concerned about the long-term effects of head impacts in sports are pledging their brains to support The Australian Sports Brain Bank.
In March this year the first six athletes to pledge were former NFL player Colin Scotts, former AFL players Sam Blease and Daniel Chick, former rugby player Peter FitzSimons, and former NRL players Ian Roberts and Shaun Valentine.
They’re calling on Australians who have played sports at all levels to sign up and donate their brain so researchers can better understand links between head impacts and diseases like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“CTE has been linked to exposure to head impacts in sports like boxing and American football but little is known about head injuries and their consequences in horse racing,” says Dr Michael Buckland who heads the brain bank based at the university’s Brain and Mind Centre.
“Athletes in contact sports, like boxing, rugby union, rugby league or impact sports such as soccer, diving and horse racing may be vulnerable.
“CTE has been diagnosed in hundreds of athletes in the United States, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Brazil," says Dr Buckland who is also Head of Neuropathology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
“I think it’s time to commit to understanding the burden of CTE in Australian sportspeople, as well as learning how to prevent and treat the disease, by studying their brains after death.”
Dale’s symptoms have worsened since his last major fall and concussion in 2013.
Consulting neurologist Dr Rowena Mobbs says Dale Spriggs is living proof of the dangers posed by a life spent racing on horseback.
“I have known Dale since childhood,” says Dr Mobbs who sees Dale as a patient and recently assessed his brain function.
“Dale’s symptoms have worsened since his last major fall and concussion in 2013. At first they were confusing and vague – lapses in memory, particularly short-term memory, that began affecting his daily life.
His mood, too, has declined, with features of depression, anxiety and irritability. He was previously highly easy-going, but now the slightest of life’s disruptions can trigger anger and a desire to run away from the situation, Dr Mobbs confirmed.
“His features are concerning for a concussion-related injury if not for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”
Learn about pledging your brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank: https://www.brainbank.org.au/how-to-donate/