Concussions among National Football League players led to a $765-million settlement earlier this year and have fueled dialogue about head injury. The takeaway—that concussions can cause lifelong problems and lead to degenerative brain disease—has left some with nagging questions about the effects of concussions in less severe cases.
A team of researchers from Harvard University and the Boston Children’s Hospital are embarking on research to determine the effects of less frequent and/or severe concussions. And for that they’ve asked for the help of the Maine Concussion Management Institute (MCMI)—a Colby initiative run by the College’s medical director and biology research scientist Paul Berkner.
When Berkner started MCMI within the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement in 2009, he wanted to get better tools for tracking concussions into the hands of high school coaches. Now, with 89 schools involved in that program, a new project is being planned that will tap into Colby’s alumni community.
“The goal for this project is to survey our alumni and look at their quality of life as compared to their self-reported concussion history,” Berkner said. “We’re asking, ‘does the concussion history in college affect quality of life in middle age?’”
To answer that question, Berkner and his interdisciplinary faculty research team and nine students have teamed up with two of the most prominent researchers in the field of concussion study—Rebekah Mannix and Bill Meehan of Harvard and Boston Children’s. Together, they’re inviting alumni of several NESCAC schools including Colby, Williams, and Wesleyan to take an online survey that asks respondents whether they played sports in college and if they experienced any concussions to determine whether certain injury patterns are associated with any long-term difference in neurologic quality of life.
They think the answers may be surprising.
Mannix, for one, hypothesizes that the known positive effects of playing sports—better physical and mental health, namely—will for most alumni outweigh the rare instance of concussion. Concussions in professional athletes can have serious long-term effects, but the experience for most NESCAC graduates is likely different, she says.
“My thinking is that it is, like all things, a dose response effect,” she said. “If you get whammed in the head a hundred times in your career that’s a different person than someone who sustains one concussion in a division three athletic endeavor.”
Berkner said he’s hoping as many Colby alumni as possible will take the survey. Combined with the responses from other participating NESCAC schools, strong participation could provide enough data for a definitive conclusion that allows Colbians—both those working on the MCMI project and the alumni who take the survey—to address a significant healthcare question being asked across the country.
Alumni can take the survey at headinjurystudy.com. All Colby alumni are invited to participate, including those who did not participate in athletics at Colby and have never experienced a concussion.