Brain health study with retired NHL players receives $750K boost

Expands recruitment to university hockey alumni


Toronto, Canada – A landmark study tracking the brain health of retired NHL players over several years has received a $750,000 boost from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to expand recruitment to university hockey alumni.

The study – which started in 2011 and currently has 30 NHL alumni enrolled – is led by the world-renowned Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto. The new funding will be spread over five years and comes on the heels of an earlier CIHR Catalyst Grant and Alzheimer Society of Canada grant that helped launch the project.

Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) is one of the best in the world for studying the aging brain. NHL alumni are undergoing comprehensive cognitive testing to establish baseline mental status, lifestyle habits such as substance abuse, chronic health conditions, as well as a detailed concussion history. Study participants have their brains scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and contribute blood and cerebrospinal fluid samples that will help researchers identify risk factors associated with dementia, including genetics. They will also have the option of brain donation upon death for definitive diagnosis of neurodegenerative disease (if any).

“We are extending our study to include not just retired pro hockey players but university hockey alumni. This will allow us to generalize our findings to a sample that is more representative of the general population,” said principal investigator Brian Levine, a senior scientist with Baycrest’s RRI and expert in head trauma and dementia.

The study is unique because it focuses on aging hockey players and looks at a myriad of factors that can potentially impact their brain health over time. “This is one of the most comprehensive studies out there,” said Levine. “In addition to concussion history, we are looking at lifestyle factors, chronic illnesses, and genetics and proteins related to dementia, which can all impact cognitive health in aging.”

Levine and his colleagues are testing individuals with and without a history of concussion, and those with and without age-related cognitive and behavioural changes. Comparing these different groups of volunteers is crucial to isolating important factors in neurodegenerative disease.

“As former super fit athletes from a high impact sport, we are very interested in contributing to research that will help illuminate the different factors that influence the aging process, particularly around brain health and dementia. We hope that the findings will have wider implications for all aging adults,” said Mark Napier, executive director of the NHL Alumni Association.

The study has also enrolled age-and-education matched family members and friends of the retired NHL players to form a comparison group that is undergoing the same assessment. The comparison group will help researchers tease apart the brain health factors that may be specific to retired hockey players as opposed to those that are present in the general population. Follow up testing will take place every four years.

University hockey alumni up to age 90, who are interested in enrolling in the study, should contact Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute recruitment hotline, 416-785-2500, ext. 3100. Eligible participants may still be active in recreational sports; however those who are still actively competing as a professional, semi-professional or university hockey player will not qualify.

About Baycrest Health Sciences
Headquartered on a 22-acre campus and fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest is unique in the world, combining a comprehensive system of care for aging adults and one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience (the Rotman Research Institute). Baycrest’s dedicated centres focus on mitigating the impact of age-related illness and impairment, and offer unmatched global knowledge exchange and commercialization capacity.

About CIHR
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is the Government of Canada’s health research investment agency. CIHR’s mission is to create new scientific knowledge and to enable its translation into improved health, more effective health services and products, and a strengthened health care system for Canadians. Composed of 13 Institutes, CIHR provides leadership and support to more than 13,200 health researchers and trainees across Canada.

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For more information on this press release, please contact:
Kelly Connelly
Senior Media Officer
Rotman Research Institute
Baycrest Health Sciences