- Cervical spinal cord
- T1 MP2RAGE
- Inhomogeneous magnetization transfer
Rugby players are subject to multiple impacts to their head and neck that could have adverse neurological effects and put them at increased risk of neurodegeneration. Previous studies demonstrated altered default mode network and diffusion metrics on brain, as well as more foraminal stenosis, disc protrusion and neck pain among players of contact sports as compared to healthy controls. However, the long-term effects of practice and repetitive impacts on brain and cervical spinal cord (cSC) of the rugby players have never been systematically investigated. In this study, 15 retired professional and amateur rugby players (R) and 15 age-matched healthy controls (HC) (all males; mean age R: 46.8 ± 7.6; and HC: 48.6 ± 9.5) were recruited both to investigate cord impairments and further characterize brain structure damage. Medical questionnaires including modified Japanese Orthopedic Association scale (mJOA) and Neck Disability Index (NDI) were filled by all participants. A 3 T multi-parametric MR protocol including conventional qualitative techniques such as T1-, T2-, and T2*-weighted sequences, as well as state-of-the art quantitative techniques including MP2RAGE T1 mapping and 3D ihMTRAGE, was used on both brain and cSC. Normalized brain WM and GM volumes, spine Overall Stenosis Score, cord cross-sectional area and regional T1 and ihMT metrics were derived from these acquisitions. Rugby players showed significantly higher NDI scores, as well as a faster decline of normalized brain GM volume with age as compared to HC. Moreover, higher T1 values on cSC suggestive of structural degeneration, together with higher T1 and lower ihMTsat on brain WM suggestive of demyelination, were observed in retired rugby players as compared to age-matched controls, which may suggest cumulative effects of long-term impacts on the tissues. Metrics also suggest early aging and different aging processes on brain tissue in the players. These preliminary observations provide new insights in the domain, which should now be further investigated on larger cohorts and multicentric longitudinal studies, and further correlated to the likelihood of neurodegenerative diseases and risk factors.