James Graham’s concerning MRI results ‘likely linked to repetitive head trauma’

Doctors treating former England and St Helens prop James Graham are concerned by “dark spots” which have shown up on a recent brain scan and are believed to be the result of repetitive head trauma.

The 37-year-old, who says he endured more than 100 concussions and 18,000 collisions during his career, has undergone a series of tests since his retirement.

He says he had performed well on a neuro-psychological exam, but a new MRI scan has been less positive.

“The MRI scan of the brain shows some dark spots on there, which are of concern to my doctor and my neurologist,” he told the PA news agency.

“And then also there’s an area of the brain that the volume is in the bottom three percentile of where it should be, which they believe is likely linked to repetitive head trauma.”

The news comes after a law firm confirmed it would this week send a letter of claim to the Rugby Football League on behalf of a group of former professional and semi-professional players, alleging the governing body failed to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent brain injury.

The group includes former pros Francis Maloney and Bobbie Goulding who have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

James Graham says he will donate his brain for scientific research after his death
James Graham says he will donate his brain for scientific research after his death (Martin Rickett/PA)

Graham, who is not part of the group, has previously stated his intention to donate his brain for scientific research when he dies. He said at this stage he had not been given a definitive diagnosis based on the MRI scan, and that he will be subjected to regular monitoring.

“People ask, ‘are you nervous, are you worried?’ No. I’d rather know. I don’t want to plead ignorance throughout this whole process. I’m not naive enough to think that the game that I played, in the way I played it, I’m not going to pay a price for that,” he added.

“So actually, for me to have this knowledge it gives me greater motivation in order to keep up with some of the changes that I’ve made in my life. I try and stack the odds in my favour for better future health outcomes.”

One way in which Graham does that is through working with Dr Julia Jones and her Smart Wellness course.

“I took a few bits of advice from her, some lifestyle changes, just simple habits around the benefits of intermittent fasting, cold showering, practising mindfulness, gratitude, meditation,” said Graham, who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety nine months after he retired from the sport.

“There’s a multitude of them that I think fundamentally lead to better health outcomes. It doesn’t mean significant change to your life, but she has really helped me out a lot.”

Graham has long campaigned to make his sport safer.

“It’s clear we have to act,” Graham said.

“There are a number of recommendations out there in order to try and reduce that risk (of developing neurodegenerative disease). I don’t think you’ll ever be able to reduce that down to the national average.

“However, I will say this about the benefit of sport – the evidence on that is crystal-clear, not only for the individual, but the community and society in general as a whole. So, make no mistake, sport is good, but it needs to be safer.”

Graham believes collisions in children’s grassroots rugby must be carefully policed, former players should be given the tools to be able to keep track of their brain health and that current players must be protected – in some instances from themselves.

“Current players are highly-motivated athletes that are willing to do, by their own admission, almost anything in the pursuit of victory,” he said.

“I don’t have any regrets about the way I played. I was a product of my environment. It used to be worn as a badge of honour to be concussed or knocked out and get up and carry on.

“It was (seen as) courageous, brave, tough, all the attributes of the warrior-style mentality, continuing on and not wanting to leave the field under any circumstances. I think there needs to be a culture shift and environmental shift.”