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NCAA grant funds concussion study

The NCAA is providing a $400,000 grant to the National Sport Concussion Outcomes Study Consortium to examine the effects of head injuries in contact and noncontact sports in both genders through the course of a college career.

The consortium hopes to study more than 1,000 male and female student-athletes competing in 11 sports at three schools to study the effects of contact on the brain. The researchers hope to track those athletes after their college careers end and examine the long-term effects of brain impacts – an area that is still not understood.

The National Sport Concussion Outcomes Study Consortium was formed to address these specific issues with investigators from nationally recognized universities Michigan, North Carolina, UCLA and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Jeff Kutcher, a clinical associate professor of neurology at Michigan who is one of the study’s lead investigators, believes it could become a watershed moment in the study of concussions.

“There’s a tremendous need for data that describe both the short and long-term health consequences of concussions,” Kutcher said. “There are some hints, and a series of case reports in the literature, but no well-controlled study that addresses the long-term questions. To do that study, and do it correctly, requires following a population of athletes over time and documenting their brain function, while controlling for other variables.”

The NCAA has been a leader in studying concussions and taking preventative steps to protect student-athletes by adjusting playing rules to emphasize safety and establishing best-practice procedures aimed at properly diagnosing and treating brain injuries. David Klossner, the NCAA’s director of health and safety, said supporting the consortium’s study will aid efforts to promote a safe competitive environment.

“The NCAA is seeking to foster innovative research among its member universities to increase knowledge about the short-term and long-term neurological consequences of playing sports,” Klossner said. “In addition to monitoring trends in concussions through the Association’s injury-surveillance system, this research is another important step to enhance student-athlete safety.”

Kutcher believes the data the study collects will provide a more comprehensive understanding of concussions. The short-term effects have been examined for several years, and technological advancements have helped improve the understanding of impacts on the brain by using shock sensors embedded in players’ helmets.

The long-term effects have recently become a topic of heated discussion among retired players in contact sports after autopsies on deceased players revealed the development of a degenerative condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

But Kutcher said the relationship between short-term damage and possible long-term complications, while suggested in case reports, is not understood because comprehensive studies have not been conducted to examine how traumatic impacts affect the brain over time. The new study, which will begin this summer, could eventually help researchers better understand the process.

“There are millions upon millions of people who have played sports, who have played contact sports, for over 100 years,” Kutcher said. “And in the field of cognitive neurology, we have not seen an epidemic of contact-sport athletes coming to our clinics. So that leads to the conclusion that there is another series of risk factors that has to be identified.”

Another challenge for concussion researchers has been the difficulty in studying sports that do not use helmets, which complicated the process of gathering accurate, measurable data of head impacts.

A new technology has opened the door to what Kutcher believes could be a benchmark in concussion research. A mouth guard developed by X2Impact can sense and record head impacts similar to the accelerometer sensors in football helmets used during previous studies. That technology, available only since 2010, provides new opportunities for Kutcher and his partners to examine a broader spectrum of student-athletes, including men’s and women’s soccer, basketball, women’s water polo and field hockey, in addition to helmeted sports such as football, ice hockey and men’s lacrosse.

Kutcher said the study hopes to follow the initial group of athletes throughout the course of their lives, gathering data every year to build a comprehensive picture of how concussions affect athletes.

“Ultimately,” Kutcher said, “we feel this is the beginning of a very large, very powerful study that will benefit the health of athletes at all levels, of all ages, of both genders, of every sport.”