Trinity researchers to investigate retired athletes from rugby and rowing

The multidisciplinary team will assess how elite athlete’s health is affected by concussion and retirement

A new Trinity research project will seek to address how a career as an athlete affects long term physical and mental health. The research is in collaboration with Rugby Players Ireland and Rowing Ireland and is being carried out by physiotherapists, neuroscientists and psychologists from Trinity. The team will investigate everything from cognitive functioning and mental wellness to general health and ongoing injuries.

The study will have a particular focus on impact sport and brain health, as the researchers are interested in seeing how the positive effects of a career in exercise “may be offset by involvement in an impact sport.” Participants in the study include former Irish professional rugby players, ex-Irish Women’s XV players and retired elite athletes from Rowing Ireland.

Dr Fiona Wilson, Associate Professor in Physiotherapy, and one of the principal investigators on the project said that “A strong aspect of this programme is that it includes female athletes who are commonly ignored in this type of research.” She sets out that “This study hopes to identify what the positive and negative effects of a professional sports career are on an athlete’s long term health.”

Physiologist and neuroscientist, Dr Aine Kelly, revealed that her lab’s work has shown “that participation in exercise throughout life, helps to build resilience in the brain that can protect its structure and function as we get older. We are interested in how a career in sport enhances this effect and if this effect persists into retirement.”

Of the mental struggle that retirement can bring, Dr Ella McCabe added “Alongside the many advantages of a rugby career, retired players can face a particular set of challenges, including renegotiating their identity, sense of belonging, sense of purpose and financial circumstances all at once.” She says elite athlete mental health services are “designed based on player feedback, the current evidence base and involvement in high quality research.”

CEO of Rugby Players Ireland Simon Keogh acknowledged that the study will be a great benefit: “This study, which is in the hands of some leading medical professionals, will give us a great insight as to where the focus of our work should be going forward when dealing with retired players. Furthermore, on an individual level our players will be provided with valuable information about their current brain health and general wellbeing.”

The principal investigators on the research team are Trinity Associate Professors Dr Fiona Wilson, (Physiotherapy), Dr Aine Kelly (Neuroscience), as well as Professor Fiona Newell (Psychology) and Ms Joice Cunningham, a PhD candidate. The study has also enlisted the help of Dr Steve Broglio and Dr Michael McCrae who have both been responsible for some of the most comprehensive studies carried out in the field of sports related concussions in the United States.

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is a former Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News.