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CARE Consortium: Predicting collegiate athlete baseline neurocognitive scores

Study finds outside factors had bigger impact than concussion or sport exposure history

Cognitive abilities among athletes will inevitably vary, and results on baseline tests will reflect those variations. But what factors contribute to those differences? And how can understanding those factors influence clinical decision-making? Zac Houck, a graduate student in Florida’s Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, was the lead author on a recent paper that sought to address those questions. The paper used baseline concussion testing data from 403 student-athletes at Florida who participated in the Concussion Assessment, Research and Education Consortium study. Houck’s findings were published in January in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

What did the study find?

The research found that race, socioeconomic status and developmental factors (learning disabilities, etc.) affected baseline cognitive scores more significantly than concussion history and sport exposure history. Factors such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder more closely correlated with worse memory or cognitive speed than contact sport exposure.

What are the implications?

“There is a temptation to directly and immediately attribute ‘poor’ test performance to things like a history of concussion or multiple years playing collision sports, but properly accounting for these other factors is essential before reaching that conclusion,” Houck said. “This finding is significant as it highlights that neurocognitive performance at baseline within collegiate football players is indeed affected by their race and their socioeconomic backgrounds during childhood; we found no effect of concussion or football exposure. If clinicians are aware of these kinds of relationships, what seems like a low test score may be normal or expected for that individual.”

What’s next?

While this study examined certain factors that impact test scores and cognitive abilities among younger student-athletes, further research should be done to see if those factors are similar predictors of cognitive performance later in life. 

“Future research should extend these findings to older retired athletes to examine how factors beyond exposure to head trauma ultimately influence later-life functioning,” Houck said. “This is a very complicated problem, which requires consideration of several important variables, not just head impact exposure.”