Polly Farmer is the first Australian Rules player to have been diagnosed with neurodegenerative disease CTE. (AAP: Richard Wainwright)
The late Australian Rules football legend Graham “Polly” Farmer has been confirmed to have suffered from the neurodegenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
- Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated concussions or head injuries
- Originally known as punch-drunk syndrome, it was found at autopsy in ex-boxers, but has now been linked to American footballers, and players in ice hockey, rugby league and soccer
- CTE ranges from the mildest form in stage one to the most severe in stage four — former Australian Rules great Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer was found with stage three
Famer has been posthumously diagnosed with Stage III CTE following tests on tissue from the former ruckman’s brain at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital — he is the first Australian Rules player to have such a finding confirmed.
The founder of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, Professor Michael Buckland, told reporters that he was trying to highlight the issue for Australian Rules football.
“This is a work in progress,” he said.
“It’s too early to tell [what it means] for Australian sport”.
CTE is a neurodegenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated concussions, which can only be diagnosed after death.
Signs and symptoms of concussion
- Loss of consciousness after impact
- Confusion, disorientation, loss of coordination or balance
- Memory impairment
- Dazed or vacant stare
- Headaches, neck pain, feeling pressure in the head
- Blurred vision, dizziness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Irritability, feeling more emotional, nervous or anxious
A protein called Tau is found in the brain — it normally helps with the structure of neurons, but if released in a wider environment it can become toxic to brain cells and eventually kill them.
“It depends on how far the progression goes — we have stage 1 which is minimal through to stage 4 where there is a loss of brain tissue globally,” Assistant Professor Alan Pearce from La Trobe University told ABC Melbourne.
“Polly was diagnosed with CTE stage 3.5, so it’s on the severe scale.”
CTE was originally known as punch-drunk syndrome, as it was found in a lot of ex-boxers.
But it has more recently been found in the brains of former players of several sports, including American football, ice hockey and soccer.
Last year Professor Buckland — who is also the head of neuropathology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital — identified CTE in the brains of two former rugby league players including Canterbury Bulldogs coach and player Steve Folkes.
Farmer a Legend of the game
Farmer was one of the inaugural inductees and ‘Legends’ of the game to the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996 along with the likes of Ron Barassi, Kevin Bartlett, Jack Dyer, Malcolm Blight and John Coleman.
The AFL legend, who played 101 games for Geelong and captained the club from 1965-67, died last year at the age of 84 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
As well as his three Sandover Medals (best and fairest in the Western Australian Football League), he was runner-up for the Brownlow Medal when playing at Geelong and was three times named in the All-Australian team.
He won the 1963 VFL premiership with the Cats, after earning five WAFL flags with West Perth.
Farmer was also named as captain of the Indigenous Team of the Century in 2005 and he was the first Indigenous coach in VFL/AFL history.
Need for sports to evolve
Assistant Professors Michael Buckland (L) and Alan Pearce spoke to the media about the CTE finding for Polly Farmer. (ABC News: Patrick Galloway)
Professor Buckland said he wasn’t an expert in AFL and could not comment on the specifics of the rules and way the sport operated.
But he noted that other codes had changed over the years to deal with the issue of head knocks.
“These sports have evolved and continue to evolve, for example the rugby league I watched as a kid is not the same rugby league that is played today,” he said.
“I don’t see why this conversation we’re having [about CTE] can’t feed into the continuing evolution of sport.”
He said that while there was limited evidence to make specific statements about CTE, it appeared that players at risk were those with exposure to head knocks “for a very long period of time”.
Call for more brain checks to identify CTE
Professor Buckland said that the presence of abnormal Tau was also linked to Alzheimer’s Disease.
“This case was severe CTE, with also features of Alzheimer’s,” he said.
“For most [sports] people we don’t look at the brains at autopsy, so we don’t know if that’s what’s happening [CTE].
“There is no code for CTE for causes of death, so there’s no way to track that in the public health system.
“Personally, I suspect that most people with CTE that haven’t been looked at in autopsy would have Alzheimer’s on their death certificate.”