By Brian Hendrickson
In an effort to expand its commitment to the health and safety of its student-athletes, the NCAA announced it will participate in an unprecedented strategic alliance formed by the NFL and GE to facilitate innovation and advance research into brain injuries.
The Head Health Initiative will be spearheaded by a four-year, $60 million collaboration funded by the NFL, GE, and Under Armour and supported by the NCAA and United States military. Its goal is to develop next-generation imaging technologies to improve diagnosis and management of concussions and uncover innovative approaches to protecting the brain.
The broad-reaching initiative hopes to not only protect amateur and professional athletes but to develop technologies that can protect and treat military personnel and the general public as well.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said the strategic alliance is an extension of the NCAA’s 107-year-old founding mission to protect the health and well-being of student-athletes.
“Now you have a moment where there are 460,000 college students playing NCAA sports across the United States,” Emmert said during the initiative’s March 11 announcement in New York. “They play in 23 different sports. They participate in 89 different championships. But the mission of the NCAA is still exactly the same: To make sure we provide for and are attentive to the health and well-being of those young men and those young women.
“To have this initiative going forward to provide the kind of research and innovation that we all need to keep track of and protect our young people from injuries going forward while they participate in sport and beyond is a wonderful moment for us.”
The NCAA will support research funded by the partnership by providing scientists with opportunities to study concussions and their effects beyond the football field, the sport that has brought the injury’s detrimental effects to the forefront of health and safety discussions. The NCAA will encourage its member institutions to participate in the initiative by having medical staff who work with their student-athletes speak with the students about volunteering for study.
NCAA student-athlete participation will allow the initiative to expand beyond football to other sports, such as soccer, lacrosse and ice hockey. The volunteers from the NCAA’s community of 460,000 student-athletes will provide diversity in concussion studies necessary to understand how the risks and effects might differ between women and men, and in different sports.
In addition, the NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Brian Hainline, will serve on the Head Health Initiative’s medical advisory board.
“The strategic alliance with the Head Health Initiative is another major step forward for the NCAA and for the health and safety of NCAA student-athletes,” Hainline said. “The Initiative will be at the cutting-edge of concussion diagnosis, prevention and management. This could be a game-changer for athletes, military personnel and civilians who are at risk for or who develop mild traumatic brain injury.”
The NCAA has played an important role in recent years to protect athletes from concussions by funding research, adjusting playing rules, and providing concussion management guidelines. For example, a recent change to kickoff rules in football reduced the number of concussions on those plays last fall by 50 percent. The NCAA has also funded grants to research various aspects of the injuries in recent years, including one of the first large-scale, long-range examinations of concussions, currently being conducted by four NCAA-member universities.
But Richard Hausmann, president and CEO of MR (magnetic resonance) for GE Healthcare, said there remains a large knowledge gap between the effects of concussions and brain disorders that develop years later. It is not yet understood how the two may be related. And even the initial diagnosis is not as simple as identifying a knee injury, where current imaging technology allows doctors to see and diagnose the problem and rehabilitate from it, Hausmann said.
Dr. Geoffrey Manley, chief of neurosurgery at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of neurosurgery at California-San Francisco, said the Head Health Initiative will provide the type of support to concussion research that can close the knowledge gap.
“There’s answers out there, and I think we can find them,” Manley said. “I see that we’re on the threshold of some really big things. And I see that we really can make a difference by bringing all these people together. Many of these answers are right in front of us.”
The collaboration between the NFL, GE, the NCAA and other partners aims to develop the technologies needed to more accurately diagnose brain injuries and develop protocols to more effectively treat them. Some of those existing technologies, such as Diffusor Tensor Imaging (DTI) coupled with functional brain imaging, broadens the view of the brain for researchers and could provide more powerful tools for diagnosis. The partnership aims to develop those technologies and make them more widely available to more definitively diagnose brain injuries at earlier stages.
Representatives of each partner stressed that the Head Health Initiative’s focus is not exclusive to football, or even sports in general. It aims to take a broader view of the issue and use what is learned on the competitive courts and fields to improve the health care available to the general public, where concussions are a risk in bicycle accidents, auto collisions and household accidents just as they are on a football field.
“This is going to be felt more broadly in the health care system than just what we’re talking about today,” said GE chair and CEO Jeff Immelt. “We are going to bring the best of the best to this effort to really study the diagnosis, track therapies and really do everything we can around the whole science of mild and traumatic brain injury.”