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NCAA funds study examining the long-term effects of concussions in sports

By Brian Burnsed
NCAA.org

The NCAA has awarded a pair of leading concussion researchers a $399,999 grant, which will help subsidize a potentially groundbreaking study examining the long-term effects of head injuries in college athletes.

Kevin Guskiewicz, director of North Carolina’s Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center and Michael McCrea, director of brain injury research at Medical College of Wisconsin, are spearheading the research.

While numerous studies – including work by Guskiewicz and McCrea – have examined the effects of concussions immediately after they occur, a dearth of academic literature pertains to the chronic neurological effects of concussions and repetitive, sub-concussive head impacts, particularly among NCAA athletes. The public and athletes alike have grown increasingly concerned about the long-term impact of head injuries, but the void in understanding has been filled mostly by conjecture and anecdotal evidence, the researchers suggest. Guskiewicz and McCrea, however, seek to fill it with hard data by conducting examinations with former student-athletes involved in previous studies.    

“Clinical research has advanced our understanding of sport-related concussion and has driven evidence-based approaches to acute injury management and return to play guidelines,” the researchers wrote in their study proposal. “Recent concerns, however, focus on potentialchronic neurologic effects of concussion and repetitive head impacts in contact sports… This study represents the most comprehensive investigation of long-range neurologic health outcomes in former NCAA athletes.”

For this study, the researchers will draw upon the pool of NCAA student-athletes who took part in a previous NCAA-funded study. In 1999, Guskiewicz and McCrea embarked on “The NCAA Concussion Study”, which examined football players from 29 NCAA Division I, II and III schools. When findings were published in 2003, no other study had examined a larger pool of concussed athletes. Thanks to that study, Guskiewicz and McCrea already have a slew of data at their disposal, which they’ll be able to use alongside the new data they collect from many of the same athletes. That ability to track college athletes’ health over an extended window will be immensely beneficial, Guskiewicz and McCrea wrote, given that it will allow them to identify clear trends over time.

“They are the right investigators for this,” said NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline. “They’re working with solid baseline data for which comparisons can be made, and they make proposals for cutting-edge neuroimaging biomarkers that will help shape the future of concussion diagnosis and management.”   

Through the first 18 months of the study, the researchers will conduct a health survey of 2,000 former student-athletes who took part in the first NCAA Concussion Study as well as other studies Guskiewicz and McCrea carried out through the late 1990s and early last decade. Based on their responses, that field will be whittled down to 120 respondents with varying levels of concussion exposure across an array of contact sports. That group will take part in physical evaluations, such as balance assessments, psychological surveys, genetic testing and neuroimaging studies, among others, at either researcher’s campus. Guskiewicz and McCrea believe that tracking these former student-athletes over such a lengthy period of time – they plan to study this group for years to come – and comparing them to data collected from retired NFL players will shed new light on the long-term effects, or lack thereof, of both concussions and repeated head impacts in college athletics.

“Our study will advance the science on the chronic effects of concussion and head impact exposure, while protecting the health of athletes and the future of NCAA sports,” Guskiewicz and McCrea wrote.