The American College of Sports Medicine estimates there are more than two million sports- and recreation-related concussions suffered nationwideeach year. And while concussions are receiving more attention on and off the field at the professional level, not much is known about the long-term effects repeated concussions can have on the health of high school and college athletes.
A team of Elon researchers seeks to shed more light on this issue. They are looking at athletes’ concussion history to see how that influences long-term cognitive function decline in student-athletes. Eric Hall, an associate professor of exercise science and one of the researchers leading the study, says they’ve been focusing on football players, as well as men’s and women’s soccer players, because statistically they have the highest rates of concussions in high school and college sports. He says they plan to branch out into basketball and other sports to get a larger sample.
As part of the study, athletes take three tests: an impact test, which looks at concussion symptoms by measuring visual and verbal memory and reaction time; an electroencephalogram test, in which students respond to stimuli they see on a computer screen or sounds they hear; and a sensory motor test, in which researchers look at vibrations on the athletes’ fingertips.
Based on the data they’ve analyzed already, Hall says, athletes who have experienced concussions in the past show a decline in visual and verbal memory on the impact test. These athletes also need more resources to complete the other two tests than athletes who have not suffered concussions, which suggests there might be long-term effects from having repeated concussions.
Earlier this year, the research team received a grant from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine that will allow them to focus on genotyping, trying to identify certain genes that might help people recover quicker from concussions. Hall says a separate study they are collaborating with at Elon is examining whether strengthening the neck can put an athlete at lesser risk for concussions.
“The more information we have the better,” Hall says, not only to treat concussions but also to make better “return-to-play” decisions. If an athlete comes back to play too early after suffering a head injury, he or she could be at greater risk for having another one down the road.
“We want to be as educated as possible to make sure student athletes don’t have concussions, because obviously the brain is still developing in high school and possibly even in college, and we want to limit the effects concussions can have on academic achievement,” Hall says. “From a classroom standpoint, we don’t want them to miss as much time in class. We want them to be successful in school because ultimately we want them to graduate from Elon and other universities.”