Indiana University researchers are tackling what happens when young football players suffer head impact injuries. Supported by a $2.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the researchers hope to determine to what extent repetitive subconcussive head impacts affect brain health in adolescents. Ultimately, the IU research will help establish safety guidelines for young athletes exposed to head impacts.
In an interview with Business of Health reporter Kylie Veleta, researchers Dr. Kei Kawata and Dr. Jesse Steinfeldt said their outcomes could be a game changer for athletes.
“We’re trying to establish how many hits are generally safe, or unsafe using some of the multiple data [points],” said Kawata. “We’re going to count those head impacts and magnitude. We’re trying to identify individual basis of neurologic resiliency and vulnerability. So not everybody should stop [playing} with a specific amount of heavy impact. I think it varies between players.”
Kawata says subconcussive head impact falls below the threshold of a concussion and may not trigger clinically detectable signs such as headache, dizziness and disorientation.
Kawata, along with Steinfelt, want to put data behind policy when it comes to adolescents competing in sports and preventing the risk of concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“The narratives about CTE and cumulative impacts abound in society without enough data to substantiate what you should do to you know, mitigate the risk,” said Steinfeldt, who is an associate professor of counseling and educational psychology at IU.
He says the number of youths playing football in the U.S. has declined because of worried parents. But Steinfeldt says those decisions are not based on facts.
“These decisions are based on fear and reactivity to narratives in society about concussions and CTE. Iit’s important to provide data so parents can make an informed decision to let their kids play. And that’s what I’m trying to do here. That’s why it’s so important,” said Steinfeldt.
The project is an extension of a study Kawata piloted in 2019 focusing on subconcussive hits among football athletes at Bloomington North High School. The current project will span four years and include athletes from Bloomington North, Bloomington High School South, Edgewood High School and Mooresville High School.
“This exciting study really include more than 100 football players and some control athletes. So we’re collecting our array of brain health data, including brain scans,” said Kawata. “And we also collect…blood samples to see the blood biomarkers from that came from the brain. We can use some of those biochemical signals to study brain health.”
As part of the research, players are using computerized mouthguards that can measure the number and magnitude of hits.
“And it allows us to suggest maybe this level hit can lead to more chronic effect, and maybe this level of hits can be safe. And that’s a really impactful data for policymaking in the future,” said Kawata.