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Penn State and Big Ten Among Leaders in Concussion Research

by on July 02, 2012 6:00 AM

This is the first in a two-part series examining concussions and their prevalence in collegiate athletics. Today's report looks at advances in research at Penn State and in the Big Ten Conference and beyond. Part two Tuesday will examine the science behind brain trauma. 

As football season draws near, the Big Ten Conference is tackling one of its biggest problems head-on.

Football programs at every level have made great strides in not only acknowledging the effects of and problems associated with concussions and other head trauma.

However, head trauma is certainly not exclusive to football, which is why the NCAA's research and evaluation of its effects are so important because of its range of sports and athletes.

Most recently, the Big Ten announced its collaboration with the Ivy League to launch a major concussion study in an effort to better understand and act on the problems of head injuries in athletes.

As reported by ESPN, the co-sponsored study "will pool academic resources in an effort to better assess injuries from a physical and behavioral standpoint, and improve athlete education and welfare."

The Ivy League and the Big Ten have a combined 17,500 student athletes, more than 9,500 of those in the Big Ten. The study will rely on their volunteering to be evaluated.

In May, Penn State announced its own research center focused dedicated to head trauma, the Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service, and a two-day conference, "Concussion in Athletics, From Brain to Behavior," scheduled for Oct. 11-12 at University Park.

The new center is funded by the National Institute of Health, and has the goals of diagnosing concussions, tracking recovery and providing aid to local athletes at every level.

"It's really a silent epidemic because you can't see the injury, you can't see the memory problems or headaches that people with concussions have,” said Semyon Slobounov, professor of kinesiology and director of the new center. "And very little is known about the short- or long-term effects of concussions."

Slobounov and his colleagues are investigating the effects of concussions on athletes' cognitive abilities, including problem-solving and motor abilities.

They plan to present the findings at the October conference.

The researchers at Penn State are doing groundbreaking work in their effort to "provide baseline and post-injury assessment services" to athletes.

"We have a scenario in which our research assistants lead the athletes by the hand through a series of hallways in a hospital that the athletes see in 3-D by wearing a pair of specialized glasses," said Wayne Sebastianelli, director of athletic medicine, professor of orthopedic surgery and a principle investigator at the center.

"The assistants then start the athletes back at the beginning of the 'maze' and ask them to find their way back to where they had first been led. The assistants measure the speed at which the athletes get to their destination and the number of wrong turns they make."

Several other tests also are conducted at the center for researchers to get the best possible grasp on what happens to the brain after an injury, be it one time or several blows to the head.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten recently launched its league-wide initiative to evaluate head trauma.

Kerry Kenny, Assistant Director of Compliance, said the effort to study and discuss solutions to head trauma was years in the making.

"It all started back in early 2010," Kenny said. “That was when the NCAA came out and said leagues had to have a police mandate regarding concussion management on file in the event a student suffered a concussion or some other kind of head trauma while playing at a collegiate institution.

Led by Commissioner Jim Delany, the Big Ten was the first to release its initiative. Once that framework was in place, the program could continue to grow.

The NCAA next said coaches and students had to receive mandatory training education regarding head trauma.

Then, the Big Ten got creative – and analytical. No one incident triggered the Big Ten's delving into concussion research, but Kenny said Delany "has a good pulse on what's going on in sports," and was certainly aware of the high-profile, professional athletes suffering concussions and the after-affects.

Delany wanted to research to look at all levels of sport and to "use athletics for the greater good of society."

"In 2010-11, those protocols were implemented on campus to use (based on) their judgment," Kenny said. "In early 2011, Commissioner Delany and one of the faculty representatives from Purdue discussed the Big Ten leading the way looking at this from a research-based perspective."

That discussion ultimately led to the Big Ten Committee on Institutional Cooperation's first research summit. That’s where representatives from different disciplines including neurology and ophthalmology were invited to the Big Ten offices in Chicago for two days to "lay everything out on the table," Kenny said.

That summit meeting has led to continuing discussion between representatives from each of the Big Ten schools in keeping up with who's receiving grants from the National Institute of Health and what opportunities there are to better align streamline information between campuses.

"We're always trying to improve the overall well-being of our students. The most important thing is their health and safety," Kenny said. "This is a very complex issue ... and the best way to address those problems is from a research standpoint.

"It's an issue we're very involved in – the discussion of the betterment of our student athletes. We could be potentially looking at them as the progress into professional sports, how head injuries may impact other people, how they impact student-athletes and young adults."

Laura Nichols is a news reporter and @LC_Nichols on Twitter.
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