By Sara LaJeuesse and Andrea Messer, Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK The Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service, a new Penn State center, will advance research on sport-related concussions and provide services to local collegiate and child athletes in the form of baseline assessments that can aid in diagnosing concussions and tracking recovery.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 1.3 million people in the U.S. sustain concussions — mild traumatic brain injuries (TBI) — each year, and about a half-million children aged 0 to 14 years make visits to the emergency department for all forms of TBI each year.
“Concussions are extremely prevalent in the population and are especially common among athletes,” said Semyon Slobounov, professor of kinesiology and director of the new center. “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. And very little is known about the short- or long-term effects of concussions.”
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Slobounov and his colleagues are investigating the effects of concussions on athletes’ cognitive abilities, including their problem-solving and motor abilities.
The researchers plan to present some of their results at “Concussion in Athletics: From Brain to Behavior,” a conference scheduled for Oct.11-12 on the Penn State University Park campus. The conference will benefit researchers and students interested in kinesiology, psychology, exercise science, neuroscience and sport medicine, as well as medical practitioners, athletic trainers, coaches, athletes and parents of athletes.
The center’s researchers also provide baseline and post-injury assessment services to local collegiate and child athletes. These assessments measure the athletes’ brain activities using an electroencephalograph. They measure the athletes’ performances on a variety of tests — written and virtual-reality. If athletes suffer a concussion, they can return to the center and repeat the testing. The researchers provide both the athletes’ post-concussion and pre-concussion data to the athletes’ physicians for use in creating a concussion management plan.
According to Slobounov, the center’s use of virtual-reality technology to document athletes’ cognitive and motor abilities is novel.
“We, at Penn State, are the first to use virtual-reality technology to study the cognitive and motor effects of concussions on athletes,” he said.
“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.”
In another scenario, athletes are placed in a virtual-reality elevator. The elevator moves up and down but does not indicate floor number. The athletes must keep track of the floor they are at, while listening to the researchers asking them questions and hearing distracting noises, such as telephones ringing. According to Slobounov, this scenario measures the athletes’ abilities to perform multiple tasks.
“Awareness of concussions and their impact on the lives of individuals across a variety of populations has risen dramatically over the last several years in both scientific communities as well as in the general population,” said Neil Sharkey, associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Health and Human Development. “The College of Health and Human Development has a tremendous opportunity to use the strength from its own faculty as well as from experts across Penn State to become a leader in research about the effects of concussions as well as in new interventions for prevention, tracking and treatment of concussions.”