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AFL Health Scare As Graham 'Polly' Farmer Diagnosed With Concussion-Linked Brain Disease

Graham 'Polly' Farmer has become the first Australian rules footballer to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated concussions, but it can only be diagnosed after death.

Professor Michael Buckland, founder of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, said CTE is diagnosed under a microscope after a person had died and cannot be "confidently diagnosed during life."

Addressing the media today, Prof Buckland explained the advanced stages of CTE often mimic Alzheimer's, meaning many people will often receive a misdiagnosis.

"Without looking at the brain, people assume it's Alzheimer's," he said.

"At this stage the only known risk factor for the development of CTE is repetitive head injuries."

Prof Buckland said when Farmer was initially diagnosed with Alzheimer's he experienced some accompanying personality changes like depression, anger, and aggression.

Farmer was diagnosed with Stage III CTE after tests were conducted on tissue from the former ruckman's brain by medical staff at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.

The AFL great and three-time All Australian died aged 84 last year. He played 101 for Geelong and was skipper at the club between 1965 and 1967.

During his decorated career he also managed to take home three Sandover Medals and was runner-up for the Brownlow Medal during his time at the Cats.

CTE has long been associated with American Football and both codes of Rugby, but this is the first time a known case has been linked to Australian Rules Football.

"What's remarkable is, for many years this was treated as a medical curiosity rather than a significant issue," Prof Buckland explained. 

The three-time All Australian died last year. Image: Getty

He said the first case of CTE in sport was diagnosed in the NFL in 2005 when there were only 42 known cases of the disease.

Now there are more than 500, most of which are associated with contact sports, according to Prof Buckland.

"We are very aware of it in American Football, Rugby League (and) Rugby Union... and now we are able to confirm this disease is present in one Australian Rules Footballer," he said.

Prof Buckland is working alongside Associate Professor Alan Pearce from LaTrobe University who has built research around Australian Rules Football players -- both elite and amateur -- where he looked at the physiology of the brain and clinical features.

He has also conducted research on Rugby League players.

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"During the last five or six years the AFL, particularly with their head injury assessments, have done a really positive move and good moves toward recognising head injuries in football as well as (ensuring) the return to play protocols are enforced as best as possible," Prof Pearce said.

"Players need to be more aware of head injures. If they're not quite right... they need to come off the field and at a club level they must be honest about the injury."

When asked whether protocols go far enough, Prof Pearce said it is not about passing or failing concussion tests but about determining a clinical diagnosis.

"The emerging research we need to do more of to verify this is the difference between symptom resolution and full brain recovery and healing," he said.

Concussion campaigner Peter Jess told SEN Farmer's CTE diagnosis "validates what we've been saying".

Professor Michael Buckland, founder of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, said CTE is diagnosed under a microscope after a person had died and cannot be "confidently diagnosed during life." Image: Supplied

"This is the clinical evidence of what the outcome is from repetitive collisions in our sport. This is what we're seeing now in the current cohort of players," he said.

Ex AFL great John Platten also told the radio station that the results were "pretty scary".

"The good thing about it is they're doing the research. I'll still be getting checked up every year so hopefully things start getting better for us," he said.

"It certainly brings back memories from when I first started playing footy, it's a bit concerning and the only way they can diagnose CTE is when you're dead. I want to know now if there are any problems and not in the future."

Farmer won a premiership in 1963 and was also the first indigenous coach in AFL history.

Featured image via AAP.