Researchers and faculty at Northern Illinois University are actively engaged in helping athletes, parents and teachers better understand and treat concussions in youth athletes and others, according to a report published earlier this month from the school.
Creating new knowledge about brain injuries
Matt Wilson is a hearing scientist in NIU’s Department of Audiology, who got interested in the issue of concussions in 2009 because the injury often damages areas of the brain associated with word processing.
Looking at the results, he has noted that on the second test some subjects perform just as well on the tests but display changes in their brain waves while doing so.Today, much of his focus is on athletes who have been subjected to hundreds, or even thousands of jarring impacts, yet never been diagnosed with a concussion. He evaluates high school and college athletes before and after a season, connecting them to a high density electroencephalography (HD-EEG) machine and measuring brain wave activity as they perform tests that are part of the standard concussion protocol.
“It suggests that perhaps the length of exposure to any sport where athletes absorb blows to the head — football, hockey, boxing, mixed martial arts – changes your brain function. Is it good or bad? It’s too early to tell, but we know that it changes. The athlete may be fine now, but issues may manifest years later.”
One of only a small number of researchers exploring this area, Wilson believes that it may take years to compile enough research to draw conclusions, in part because it is difficult to find athletes willing to participate in the research. “Many of them just don’t want to know,” says Wilson.
In addition to shedding light on the long-term consequences of sports that put athletes at risk of blows to the head, Wilson hopes that his research may also help illuminate why some people seem particularly vulnerable to the damage while others see little effect.
Evaluating current education efforts
While the problem of concussions in youth sports has a much higher profile than in the past, there is little hard evidence to say whether coaches, athletes and parents better understand how to handle the injury.
Paul Wright, the interim chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at NIU, is pulling together a team comprised of NIU researchers and representatives from Chicago area hospitals, to address that issue. They are applying for a three year, $1.65 million grant to assess the effectiveness of the Heads Up education initiative created by the Center for Disease Control about five years ago.
“The CDC created this as an educational initiative to increase understanding of concussion among players, coaches and parents, and to promote more appropriate responses to suspected concussions, but its success has not really been assessed,” says Wright.(Note: the CDC Heads Up program is not to be confused with the NFL-backed program of the same name that teaches youth safer tackling techniques.)
While NIU will likely be competing against some major medical schools, Wright believes the university is well positioned to get the grant. “This grant is not examining the medical issues. This is an evaluation of an educational program and we are very strong in doing policy research, qualitative research and quantitative research in that realm. Furthermore, we have very strong ties with schools and the athletic training community,” he says.
Even if NIU does not get the grant, the process of pursuing it has helped create new collaborative relationships with Lurie Children’s Hospital and Rush Medical Center that should ultimately benefit NIU students, says Wright. “It’s allowed us to start building a nice network and be better positioned to respond to future concussion research opportunities,” he says.
First line of defense
When a professional, college or even high school athlete sustains a possible concussion, athletic trainers are often the first ones on the scene to evaluate and care for them. In Illinois, many of those athletic trainers graduate from the highly regarded athletic training program in the Department of Kinesiology in NIU’s College of Education.
Long before concussions became a hot topic in the media, the program was preparing students to deal with the injury.
For current students enrolled in the program (which accepts only 25 undergraduates each year) that training includes everything from how to recognize a concussion on the playing field through designing and overseeing an effective treatment strategy that safely gets the athlete back in action. It encompasses new assessment protocols and new technologies like ImPACT, a sophisticated, computer-based system that incorporates pre-season testing of athletes to set a baseline for neurocognitive function, which is used to help diagnose brain trauma and track recovery.“Athletic trainers are often the first line of defense, and we work very hard to ensure that our students always have the latest information so that they can properly diagnose and effectively treat concussions,” says Professor Bill Pitney who teaches in the program.
That knowledge is increasingly in needed as youth sports become more competitive at all levels.
“Expectations for school athletics and athletes has increased over the years, and the demand for professional athletic trainers to keep those athletes safe has grown along with that,” says Wright.