New Center Focuses on Sport Concussion Research and Community Service

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 1.3 million people sustain concussions — mild traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) — each year, and about a half-million children aged 0 to 14 years make visits to the emergency department for all forms of TBI each year.

A new Penn State center — called the Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service — has been established with a goal of advancing research on sport-related concussions and of providing services to local collegiate and child athletes in the form of baseline assessments that can aid in diagnosing concussions and tracking recovery.

 “Concussions are extremely prevalent in the population and are especially common among athletes,” said Semyon Slobounov, professor of kinesiology and the new center’s director. “It’s really a silent epidemic because you can’t see the injury; you can’t see the memory problems or headaches that people with concussions have. And very little is known about the short- or long-term effects of concussions.”

concussion conference

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Slobounov and his colleagues in the center are investigating the effects of concussions on athletes’ cognitive abilities, such as their problem-solving abilities, and motor abilities, such as balance. They plan to present the results of some of this work at a conference they are hosting this fall. Titled “Concussion in Athletics: From Brain to Behavior,” the conference will be held from October 11-12, 2012 at the Penn State University Park campus. The conference is intended to benefit researchers and students who are interested in kinesiology, psychology, exercise science, neuroscience, and sport medicine, as well as medical practitioners, athletic trainers, coaches, athletes, and parents of athletes.

In addition to conducting research, the center’s researchers provide baseline and post-injury assessment services to local collegiate and child athletes. To do the assessments, they measure the athletes’ brain activities by taking an electroencephalograph (EEG), or a recording of electrical activity along the scalp. They also measure the athletes’ performances on a variety of tests, including written tests and virtual-reality tests. If the athletes receive a concussion, they can return to the center and repeat the testing. The researchers then provide the athletes’ post-concussion performance data, along with their pre-concussion baseline performance data, to the athletes’ physicians for use in creating a concussion management plan.
According to Slobounov, the center’s use of virtual-reality technology to document athletes’ cognitive and motor abilities is novel. “We, at Penn State, are the first to use virtual-reality technology to study the cognitive and motor effects of concussions on athletes,” he said.

Wayne Sebastianelli, director of athletic medicine and professor of orthopedic surgery who is a principle investigator of the center's research, explained one of the ways the center’s researchers use virtual-reality technology. “We have a scenario in which our research assistants lead the athletes by the hand through a series of hallways in a hospital that the athletes see in 3-D by wearing a pair of specialized glasses,” he said. “The assistants then start the athletes back at the beginning of the ‘maze’ and ask them to find their way back to where they had first been led. The assistants measure the speed at which the athletes get to their destination and the number of wrong turns they make.”

In another scenario, the athletes are placed in a virtual-reality elevator. The elevator moves up and down but does not indicate what floor it is at. The athletes must keep track of the floor they are at, all the while listening to the researchers asking them questions and hearing distracting noises, such as telephones ringing. According to Slobounov, this scenario measures the athletes’ abilities to perform multiple tasks.

“Awareness of concussions and their impact on the lives of individuals across a variety of populations has risen dramatically over the last several years in both scientific communities as well as in the general population,” said Neil Sharkey, associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Health and Human Development. “The College of Health and Human Development has a tremendous opportunity to use the strength from its own faculty as well as from experts across Penn State to become a leader in research about the effects of concussions as well as in new interventions for prevention, tracking and treatment of concussions. The new center is an exemplary model of a collaborative effort that fully encompasses Penn State’s three-fold mission as a land grant university. The research will advance knowledge about the short- and long-term effects of concussions and their treatment, educate students and practitioners about best practices, and provide an important and timely service to athletes within Penn State and the broader athletic community.” 

To learn more about the research being conducted by the center’s researchers or about obtaining a baseline assessment, go to: concussion.psu.edu.

To learn more about the upcoming conference, go to: www.hhdev.psu.edu/Concussion-in-Athletics.

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Editors: Editors: Semyon Slobounov can be reached at sms18@psu.edu or 814-865-3146. Wayne Sebastianelli can be reached at wqs1@psu.edu or 814-865-3566. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.