Contact events in rugby union and the link to reduced cognition: evidence for impaired redox-regulation of cerebrovascular function

Thomas S. Owens, Thomas A. Calverley, Benjamin S. Stacey, Angelo Iannatelli, Lucy Venables, George Rose, Lewis Fall, Hayato Tsukamoto, Ronan M.G. Berg, Gareth L. Jones, Christopher J. Marley, Damian M. Bailey*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
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New Findings: What is the central question of this study? How does recurrent contact incurred across a season of professional rugby union impact molecular, cerebrovascular and cognitive function? What is the main findings and its importance? A single season of professional rugby union increases systemic oxidative–nitrosative stress (OXNOS) confirmed by a free radical-mediated suppression in nitric oxide bioavailability. Forwards encountered a higher frequency of contact events compared to backs, exhibiting elevated OXNOS and lower cerebrovascular function and cognition. Collectively, these findings provide mechanistic insight into the possible cause of reduced cognition in rugby union subsequent to impairment in the redox regulation of cerebrovascular function. Abstract: Contact events in rugby union remain a public health concern. We determined the molecular, cerebrovascular and cognitive consequences of contact events during a season of professional rugby. Twenty-one male players aged 25 (mean) ± 4 (SD) years were recruited from a professional rugby team comprising forwards (n = 13) and backs (n = 8). Data were collected across the season. Pre- and post-season, venous blood was assayed for the ascorbate free radical (A•–, electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy) and nitric oxide (NO, reductive ozone-based chemiluminescence) to quantify oxidative–nitrosative stress (OXNOS). Middle cerebral artery velocity (MCAv, Doppler ultrasound) was measured to assess cerebrovascular reactivity (CVR), and cognition was assessed using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA). Notational analysis determined contact events over the season. Forwards incurred more collisions (Mean difference [MD] 7.49; 95% CI, 2.58–12.40; P = 0.005), tackles (MD 3.49; 95% CI, 0.42–6.56; P = 0.028) and jackals (MD 2.21; 95% CI, 0.18–4.24; P = 0.034). Forwards suffered five concussions while backs suffered one concussion. An increase in systemic OXNOS, confirmed by elevated A•– (F2,19 = 10.589, P = 0.004) and corresponding suppression of NO bioavailability (F2,19 = 11.492, P = 0.003) was apparent in forwards and backs across the season. This was accompanied by a reduction in cerebral oxygen delivery ((Formula presented.), F2,19 = 9.440, P = 0.006) and cognition (F2,19 = 4.813, P = 0.041). Forwards exhibited a greater decline in the cerebrovascular reactivity range to changes in PETCO2 ((Formula presented.) compared to backs (MD 1.378; 95% CI, 0.74–2.02; P < 0.001).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1971-1980
Number of pages10
JournalExperimental Physiology
Issue number9
Early online date5 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2021


  • cerebral blood flow
  • cognition
  • contact
  • rugby union


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