Racing to improve jockey health and safety


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Researcher studying a jockey

The only profession more dangerous than professional horseracing is off-shore fishing, with jockeys five times more likely to sustain a workplace concussion than AFL footballers. La Trobe University researcher Dr Brad Wright is using virtual-reality technology and blood biomarkers to develop a more reliable and sensitive test of concussion in jockeys, in this project funded by AgriFutures Thoroughbred Horses Program.

While concussion is the most common head injury sustained by professional athletes, there is currently no objective test for concussion. Dr Wright is working with Racing Victoria to identify reliable blood biomarkers of concussion in Australian professional jockeys.

According to Dr Wright currently return-to-ride decisions in jockeys following a concussion are guided by cognitive tests and physical symptoms.

“The limitation of this approach is that the brain can still be recovering from a head injury long after physical symptoms subside. By returning-to-ride prematurely after a concussion, athletes are placed at a greater risk of further injury,” said Dr Wright

AgriFutures Australia Manager, Research Annelies McGaw added improving the safety of industry participants and welfare of horses is a key priority for the AgriFutures Australia Thoroughbred Horses Program to enhance the sustainability of the industry.

“Having the capacity to objectively quantify concussion and its risk will allow jockey’s and industry participants to make informed returning-to-ride decisions. Ultimately improving jockey’s safety and the welfare of horses,” said Ms McGaw.

The study is one of the first to examine biological changes after a concussion, over a three year period. By identifying objective biological markers of concussion, Dr Wright and his research team hope to determine an accurate ‘window of vulnerability’ to further injury in jockeys.

Improving jockey health and safety using virtual reality
Improving jockey health and safety using virtual reality

Dr Wright is pairing biomarker identification with a unique approach – a virtual-reality concussion test for jockeys called CONVIRT, which he has developed with collaborators from Deakin University.

“The CONVIRT test requires jockeys don a virtual-reality headset and use a Bluetooth equipped riding crop, and perform decision-making and attention tests in a virtual horserace. Unlike traditional concussion assessments, CONVIRT also uses eye-tracking technology to measure potential dysfunction in the central nervous system by assessing the speed of eye movements and features a more ‘real-world’ testing environment,” said Dr Wright.

As their recent research shows that high stress in jockeys impairs decision-making and attention as much as a blood-alcohol content of 0.08%, Dr Wright’s team will also examine how occupational stress impacts the central nervous system, decision-making and attention during a virtual-horse race with these athletes.

The first phase of the study has progressed very well, with 105 jockeys providing blood specimens and 88 undertaking CONVIRT testing. At present, eight of these jockeys sustained a concussion, and have completed follow-up blood-sampling and CONVIRT testing at one day, one week, and one month post-concussion. Early findings are promising, with elevation of several blood markers associated with brain injury observed one month post-concussion.

The results so far provide the first biological profile of concussion over time in professional jockeys. Upcoming results at one year post-concussion will assess long-term biological changes associated with concussion.

By embracing new technology, Dr Wright hopes that his research will lead to more informed return-to-ride decisions and improve health outcomes for jockeys.

This project is due for completion in mid 2021 for updates on this project subscribe to the AgriFutures Thoroughbred Horses Program updates.

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