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Tracking concussions

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brainsportsCopyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

FOR THE RECORD: This story incorrectly reported that 56 percent of 253 Lobos who were tested as part of a brain study showed “notable” damage in their initial screenings. It should have said 56 percent showed “incidental findings.” Incidental findings could have referred to an array of conditions, including something as benign as a sinus cyst, or something like lesions or scar tissue, while “damage” suggests a previous concussion. Also, the concussion suffered by the unidentified student who decided to give up football was discovered by the team physician rather than the Brain Safe team, which is conducting the study. The Brain Safe team did magnetic resonance imaging on the student at the doctor’s request.

His dream of pursuing an exciting and potentially rewarding career in professional football came to an abrupt end recently, but that could turn out to be a good thing for the University of New Mexico student.

The unidentified Lobo suffered a concussion during the past year and decided not to continue playing the sometimes dangerous sport. It was a little too risky.

The injury was discovered by the team physician and magnetic resonance imaging was done by UNM’s Brain Safe Project, a program that studies the long-term effects of brain concussions on student athletes. The project was begun last fall, and so far 253 Lobos – football, volleyball, soccer, baseball and basketball players, along with divers and cheerleaders, male and female – have received initial, and in some cases, follow-up brain scans.

Already, the project has the world’s largest database of student athletes and concussions.

The goal is to learn more about the long-term effects of brain injuries suffered by athletes during contact sports by comparing noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging – MRI – scans taken over a period of time. Also, the project is aimed at eventually minimizing the impact of concussions.

KIEHL: Founder, director of the program (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

KIEHL: Founder, director of the program (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Kent Kiehl, founder and director of the program, on Tuesday said 11 participating Lobos have suffered concussions since Brain Safe started 10 months ago.

About 56 percent of all those tested showed “incidental findings” in their initial, baseline, screenings. That could include anything from a benign sinus cyst to more serious damage. Of those, about one in four were linked to previous injuries, of which the athletes had been aware.

“The good news,” said Kiehl of the student athletes with signs of earlier trauma, “is that they’re still cognitively intact, they passed their SAT and are functionally well.”

The young man who decided to end his gridiron career was still showing symptoms of a concussion. His parents were instrumental in helping him reach the decision to discontinue the sport.

“The project has really motivated parents to counsel their kids,” Kiehl said.

Last year, quarterback Cole Gautsche and running back Kasey Carrier had to sit out the end of the season due to brain injuries. And women’s basketball wing Deeva Vaughn missed a number of games because of concussion.

Two male cheerleaders also suffered concussions and were hospitalized when they collided on the downward side of a tumble, Kiehl said.

Because medical records are confidential, it is unclear how many, if any, of these athletes participated in Brain Safe.

In the meantime, all those MRIs are expensive. To date the project has been funded by the Mind Research Network, a nonprofit brain research institute housed on the UNM campus and headed by Kiehl, but the university is poised to ask the Legislature for $1.5 million that would pay for half the costs for the first three years of operations.

The Mind Research Network believes it can raise the other half through fundraising.

Last week, the Board of Regents’ Academic/Student Affairs & Research Committee gave the request its unanimous approval, and on Tuesday the Facilities and Finance Committee did the same. The matter will go before the entire board on Friday and is expected to pass easily.

Kiehl, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and law at UNM, was at a UNM Hospital meeting room Tuesday to educate members of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee on Brain Safe and to make a pitch for funding.

A concussion, he told the lawmakers, is a “traumatic brain injury that alters the way the brain functions.” Once someone suffers a concussion, the chance of getting another increases. Some people recover quickly, while the symptoms linger in others.

Symptoms can also vary, ranging from dizziness to blurred vision and speech, to loss of balance, to severe headaches. Long-term effects can include depression, a propensity to abuse drugs or alcohol, even suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control, Kiehl said, estimates that 1.5 million sports-related concussions occur every year, including 300,000 that result in a loss of consciousness. Moreover, 900 people die from such injuries annually.

Nationally, the most dangerous sports are football, men’s lacrosse, ice hockey and women’s soccer. Most of the soccer concussions are caused by head-to-head collisions, he said.

In addition to Kiehl, the Brain Safe team includes Drs. Andrew Mayer of the MRN and Vince Calhoun, a distinguished professor of electrical engineering at UNM.

After the initial screening at the beginning of the sports season, athletes are not tested again until the following year unless they are hurt. In that case, a second MRI is given at the time the student appears to have suffered a sports-related concussion. That is followed up by two more, one after a week has gone by, the third at the end of two weeks.

By comparing images, baseline MRI scans can be precisely compared to post-injury scans.

“Our top concern is the safety of our athletes,” said UNM athletic director Paul Krebs when the program was launched. “This is one more tool for our team doctors to use to make sure that when we return a student-athlete to play, we are making that decision based on the very best medical information available.”

UNM President Bob Frank, who ran a brain-injury program for eight years at the University of Missouri, said he believes Brain Safe is essential to preventing long-term consequences of concussions.

“This could be a game changer,” he said last year. “Combining our mind research and our athletics program to create a protocol that will measure the individual against him- or herself is one of the most advanced and sophisticated approaches in the country.”

His wife, Janet Frank, volunteers her time in Brain Safe.

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