Carthage tackles concussion research
Newest element in six-year research partnership
measures head impacts on football players
Whether they’re suffered on the athletic field or the battlefield, concussions have grabbed the attention of the medical community. And Carthage students have stepped into critical roles in the search for understanding.
Four students in Carthage’s athletic training education program work for the Medical College of Wisconsin on multiple studies, all overseen by one of the nation’s leading brain trauma researchers. The research is designed to boost confidence in clinical diagnoses and help determine when concussed patients are fit to return to duty.
This fall, the newest link in the partnership between Carthage and MCW could be seen under the Red Men’s helmets. About 60 returning football players wore sensors behind their ears for games and contact practices.
Each sensor measures the location, magnitude, and duration of impacts to that player’s head. The xPatch, developed by X2 Biosystems, is not yet commercially available. Carthage is one of four schools that partner with MCW to conduct the study, which is believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States.
Each day Becka Owens ’16, of Barneveld, Wis., applied the sensors, collected them, and uploaded the data for Medical College researchers to analyze. She aspires to become a head athletic trainer at a high school or college.
“I’ve always been fascinated with concussion research,” she said, “and it’s made me consider the possibility of pursuing more research in the future.”
A highly relevant project
The sensor experiment is the latest offshoot from Project Head to Head, which is funded by a three-year U.S. Department of Defense grant. Dr. Mike McCrea, director of brain research and professor of neurosurgery and neurology at the Medical College, directs the project. He has researched traumatic brain injuries for 20 years.
“We were studying this topic when nobody cared,” he said.
Just about everyone cares now. Fueled by a growing list of returning combat veterans and professional athletes with debilitating illnesses attributed at least in part to concussions, the topic has taken center stage. Dr. McCrea is a neuropsychology consultant to the Green Bay Packers and a member of the National Football League’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee.
Over the past six years, he has come to rely on Carthage’s help in the quest for answers. Dr. McCrea explained that the College was chosen based on the quality of its athletics and athletic training programs.
“The caliber of student there has been just outstanding,” he said. “I’ve got to have total trust in the participating sites.”
Besides Becka, three other athletic training majors are involved: Kristen Lemberger ’14, of Crystal Lake, Ill.; Ashley Greenwood ’14, of Frankfort, Ill.; and Mike Von Borstel ’16, of Orland Park, Ill.
Carthage’s head athletic trainer, Jake Dinauer, said the experience would stand out on the students’ resumes. He emphasized that they’re particularly lucky to work with Dr. McCrea and his colleagues.
“Anytime you see a concussion study in a peer-reviewed journal, his name is usually on it,” Mr. Dinauer said.
After a few initial grumbles, the football players grew used to wearing the small rectangular patches. Mr. Dinauer said parents noticed them, too, and they appreciated the intent to improve safety.
Although it’s too early in the study to draw meaningful conclusions, he said isolated measurements have yielded some interesting results. For example, sometimes multiple small hits cause as much damage as one big hit.
Another component of Project Head to Head reaches beyond football, to encompass the men’s and women’s lacrosse and soccer teams at Carthage. As its name implies, the project pits several concussion diagnostic tools against one another.
Kristen and Ashley conduct baseline tests on athletes in those sports before the season. They then administer follow-up tests to athletes who suffer concussions.
“I really enjoy it. It has to be one of the greatest opportunities I’ve had,” said Kristen, who has worked on the project since it began at Carthage in 2012. “It’s awesome to be part of this cutting-edge research.”
Through early November, they recorded 15 concussions — mostly in football, with a handful split between the other participating men’s sports. Carthage athletes’ self-reporting of concussions exceeds that at most other colleges, which faculty members link to the emphasis the College places on health.
“A lot of schools just do one computerized test as their baseline. We do a lot more than that,” Kristen said. “We’re more conservative with concussions, which is definitely the way to go.”
She recently became certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and plans initially to pursue a career as a paramedic, before an eventual return to athletic training. Although the Carthage program and its clinical hour requirements have been challenging, Kristen is confident the work will pay off.
“I feel like I’m much more prepared than I would be at another school,” she said. “All my teachers are athletic trainers. They know all the up-to-date things because they’re working in the field and not just teaching.”