A grant from the NCAA will kick off a groundbreaking, long-term study of concussion and other head injuries among athletes, led by University of Michigan researchers and their colleagues around the country.
The NCAA will provide $400,000 to begin to fund a longitudinal study by the National Sport Concussion Outcomes Study Consortium, a new group that includes three founding members from the University of Michigan: Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D., associate professor of neurology; James T. Eckner, M.D., assistant professor in physical medicine and rehabilitation; and Steven Broglio, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology.
With the NCAA grant, the Consortium will study more than 1,000 male and female college athletes who compete in 11 sports at three schools. Researchers hope to track those athletes throughout their lifetime to monitor long-term effects of head injuries.
But the Consortium has even bigger plans. Kutcher says the group is seeking funding to expand the effort and begin enrolling athletes as early as high school, then follow them through college and even into professional careers.
"We're hoping this could become a Framingham heart study for sports concussion," says Kutcher, referring to the study that began in 1948 with more than 5,000 people and has led to the identification of major cardiovascular disease risk factors.
"This study will be essential to improving our understanding of the risk to brain health for those who play sports. There is no data like this, it's groundbreaking. It will define the landscape."
Kutcher and the U-M faculty founded the Consortium with Kevin Guskiewicz, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina; Chris Giza, M.D., of the Department of Neurology at UCLA; and Michael McCrea, Ph.D., professor of neurosurgery and neurology and director of brain injury research at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
"There's a tremendous need for data that describe both the short and long-term health consequences of concussions," says Kutcher, who also is director of the Michigan Neurosport Concussion Program at U-M. "There are some hints, and a series of case reports in the literature, but no well-controlled study that addresses the long-term questions. To do that study, and do it correctly, requires following a population of athletes over time and documenting their brain function, while controlling for other variables."
David Klossner, the NCAA's director of health and safety, said supporting the consortium's study will aid efforts to promote a safe competitive environment.
"The NCAA is seeking to foster innovative research among its member universities to increase knowledge about the short-term and long-term neurological consequences of playing sports," Klossner said. "In addition to monitoring trends in concussions through the Association's injury-surveillance system, this research is another important step to enhance student-athlete safety."
In this first phase of the study, the Consortium researchers will study athletes in contact sports in men's football, soccer, basketball ice hockey, and lacrosse; women's water polo, soccer, basketball, field hockey, and lacrosse. Non-contact sport participants also will be recruited from the track and field and swimming and diving teams.
Kutcher believes the data the study collects will provide a more comprehensive understanding of concussions. The short-term effects have been examined for several years, and technological advancements have helped improve the understanding of impacts on the brain by using shock sensors embedded in players' helmets.
"There has been considerable attention paid to concussion recently, by the media and others, spurred by reports of National Football League players, hockey players - people who have had a long history of contact - having a very particular kind of dementing illness," says Kutcher.
"But that story is only beginning to be told. We need to do the appropriate research to figure out the scope of the problem."