The Maine Concussion Management Initiative (MCMI), based at Colby, will receive $475,000 from the National Football League to continue cutting-edge study of concussion in young athletes.
MCMI is one of the participants in a study recently funded by a $1.5-million NFL grant awarded to longtime MCMI collaborator Grant Iverson of the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The Colby initiative, which is headed by Health Center Director Paul Berkner and Assistant Dean of Conduct and Accountability Joseph Atkins, and supported by faculty and student researchers, is part of a team that includes experts from the United States, Canada, and Australia.
The grant will allow for further study of the broad spectrum of concussion in young athletes, including identifying predictors of recovery and possible long-term effects. “It’s an opportunity for Colby to continue groundbreaking research on concussion that we’ve been doing for ten years now,” Berkner said. “And it is an amazing opportunity for our students.”
MCMI has collected data on more than 88,000 baseline preseason tests, more than 18,000 post-injury tests, and specific injury data on nearly 1,500 D-III, high school, and middle school students. The research team has included more than a dozen Colby students each year.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that it’s incredibly important to keep the data organized,” said Jackie Lermond ’21, a sociology and biology double major and one of the principal researchers at MCMI this year. “When organizing projects of the size and scope we do, it’s important to keep track of where data is coming from and where it’s going.”
The NFL grant will allow for significant expansion of that data set, in part by offering high school athletic trainers a stipend for capturing factors surrounding concussion injuries in real time, and by providing a more efficient and effective way of collecting information.
In the past, much of the data collected on concussions has been self-reported. The grant will allow MCMI to reach out to all 150 high schools in Maine and to possibly augment that data with information collected in Massachusetts. In addition, Colby Professor of Computer Science Bruce Maxwell developed a mobile-friendly platform for a web-based concussion assessment tool, allowing for athletic trainers to record data at the scene, Berkner said, including the type of injury, the scenario at the time the athlete was hurt, the resulting symptoms, among others. The data collected is digitized and stored, giving researchers a whole group of data that is very individualized and beyond what is now available.
Colby researchers, along with the other experts led by Iverson, expect to contribute to at least 16 studies over the four-year duration of the grant in an effort to understand the effects of concussion in young athletes with pre-existing conditions, identify predictors of recovery, and develop new approaches for athletes with lingering symptoms.
“This funding is incredibly important for our research programs and the investigators involved in them,” Iverson said in an email. “It brings new resources to several of our ongoing projects.”
He said the researchers are extremely interested in what they call “precision rehabilitation,” which designs rehabilitation strategy according to both symptoms and personal characteristics. Individuals with health conditions like ADHD, prior history of migraine headaches or mental health difficulties, or prior concussions may recover differently than someone who hasn’t had those prior conditions, Iverson said. “Using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to concussion treatment may not be helpful,” he said, noting that examining the impact of these other variables may lead researchers to think about concussion treatment differently.
The NFL grant will enable researchers to work toward reducing the number of concussions suffered by student athletes, which has been a challenge, Berkner said. Most research has focused on secondary prevention like education, rather than primary prevention.
As the work moves forward, there will be an opportunity to prevent injury by analyzing data collected around the actual moment of and the conditions at the time. Researchers can consider concussions suffered in a particular sport and more precisely how those injuries happen. In soccer, for example, “does it occur on corner kicks or at practices? … That’s the really exciting stuff,” Berkner said. “This is really taking us to the next level.”
Iverson said that while there is far more public awareness of concussion than in the past, there are also public and polarized misconceptions about the seriousness of the injury. “The science of concussion is complex, and there is much to learn,” he said, “… and it is essential to continue to systematically examine this injury and its effects on student athletes.”