The University of Michigan is launching the Alumni Brain Health Study to research the long-term impacts of college athletics participation and concussions on neurological health. The pilot study, which is being conducted by the Concussion Center and the University Athletic Department, will compare data from U-M alumni who were athletes at the University and those that weren’t. All University alumni in the study must have graduated at least 10 years ago.
Dr. James Eckner, associate director of research for the Concussion Center, told The Michigan Daily the survey-based pilot study will lay the groundwork for further exploration of the relationship between concussions and brain health and help establish what sample size and funds may be needed for a future project.
“(What) we’re currently doing … is a pilot study and it’s limited to a web-based survey,” Eckner said. “The goal is that we will take what we learned from the pilot study and develop it into a larger future study that would include additional data collection, potentially including in-person kind of assessments, potentially neuroimaging (and) potentially blood biomarkers.”
According to Eckner, the survey will include questions about concussion history, demographics, cognitive function, mood and sports participation, including pre-college, during college and post-college participation.
“We get about as granular as you can get in an online survey,” Eckner said. “We try to get a kind of a well-rounded picture of the respondent, but again the main things relate to the sport history, concussion history and cognitive and mood standardized outcomes.”
Dr. Philip Veliz, associate professor in the School of Nursing and one of the study’s principal investigators, spoke with The Daily about the study’s importance for furthering public concussion awareness and advancing research on the lasting impacts of concussions.
“A lot of things get put out in the media that we’re really not 100% sure about,” Veliz said. “By the time 12th grade rolls around, about 20% of the adolescent population has already sustained (a concussion) … the majority of these are mild, but we really don’t know the longer-term impacts of how these types of injuries really shape development over time.”
Experts estimate that there are between 1.6 and 3 million sports-related concussions a year in the U.S. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by an impact to the head which shakes the brain within the skull and leads to chemical changes in the brain. The injury can occur during a variety of activities, but is often a risk of participating in athletics.
“The short-term risks, things like fracture, sprain, concussion, that’s kind of easy to understand,” Eckner said. “What’s a little harder to understand is the potential long-term risks, specifically to your brain.”
According to Eckner, questions remain about why some athletes develop brain health issues later in life, while others do not.
“Some sets of former athletes, as they age, seem to develop neurological problems,” Eckner said. “They seem to be related to the history of concussions and the impacts that they experienced when they were younger.”
Engineering senior Claire Dawson, a player on the U-M women’s soccer team, said she has not experienced a concussion herself, but knows of other soccer players who have.
“(Getting a concussion) is definitely in the back of your mind … but it’s not super talked about,” Dawson said. “The more studies (researchers) can do on it the better. Obviously, you want to limit (concussions) as much as possible.”
Though post-concussion brain health is a complicated and nuanced topic, Eckner said the study has the potential to help better inform individuals and organizations.
“We think that if (relationships between athletics, concussions and brain health) and potential long-term effects are better understood, they can help inform policy and inform regulations to try to help make sports safer globally,” Eckner said. “And then at an individual level, we think that if individual athletes and their families have better information, they can make better decisions about what sports they would like to play when they balance the risks and the benefits of the sport.”
Daily Staff Reporter Nadia Taeckens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daily News Contributor Arianna Ontko contributed to the reporting of this article.