The Purdue Neurotrauma Group (PNG) has earned a place in the national spotlight for shedding light on traumatic brain injury—proving that the concern extends far beyond concussions. Imaging some 400 high school athletes with full MRI workups, PNG was the first to reveal that up to 90 percent of players experience changes in brain behavior. Head injuries continue to rattle the athletic world and demand researchers dig deeper, but PNG says “our funding is drying up.” Self-described as “the only independent research group,” the team is going on the offensive to find critical funds.
Purdue alumnus and former NFL quarterback Mark Herrmann fronts a crowdfunding video the group recently issued to drum up support. It won’t generate the $2 million needed to conduct the study the team envisions, but it will nudge the needle and generate awareness of why PNG has an unconventional game plan for funding its research.
“Our niche is looking at the players before they start playing; we do a complete MRI workup and cognitive testing, then we track every hit that they take all through the season during practices and games [for high school football and women’s soccer],” says Purdue Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering Professor Dr. Eric Nauman. “Then we look at how their brains and brain function changes during the season and how it recovers—or doesn’t recover—post-season.”
The team’s research uncovered that most players are experiencing some level of neurotrauma—underscoring their stance that concussions shouldn’t be the only focus.
“[Other studies] are trying to identify concussions, but concussions are only 10 percent of the problem,” says Nauman. “We’re seeing changes in brain behavior affect anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the players.”
The group says its annual expenditure for “an okay” study is a minimum of $400,000. The most impactful study—the one PNG is aiming for—would follow football and men’s and women’s soccer players for two years to compare brain changes that occur in the different genders and sports. The researchers estimate it would cost close to $2 million.
“[PNG] was first to show some of these [head injury] effects are ubiquitous—showing up everywhere—and changing how kids’ brains work,” says Nauman. “And that’s a problem, so the NFL is not interested in our stuff. We’re at a point where we’ve used up our resources.”
In 2014, the NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) launched a three-year, $30 million study that’s focusing on concussions. In 2013, the NFL partnered with General Electric on a $50 million initiative to study better imaging technology to detect concussions. And the researchers say the National Institutes of Health (NIH) focuses on medical schools, “and we’re not medical doctors.”
“The reality is the real amount of money available to other researchers not tied to [the NFL and NCAA] projects is probably well less than $1 million a year across the country,” says Purdue Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering Professor Dr. Thomas Talavage. “Tracking down that kind of money when you don’t have access to the deep pockets of government—as in the NIH or DOD—is a real challenge.”
The team emphasizes that PNG has “made some really big strides” in research so far for less than $1 million.
“We’ve studied and imaged more players cheaper than any of these other studies. We’ve got more data than anybody,” says Nauman. “We’re willing to step outside our comfort zone and try to raise money because it’s important; I don’t want our research funded by the NFL and [other sports organizations].”
Motivated by the ultimate goal to use PNG’s research to “prevent injuries in the first place,” the team is charging forward with crowdsourcing and has grant applications pending.
“It’s entirely fixable. This [head injury] problem could go away within six months if we have a decent level of funding to implement the interventions,” says Purdue Department of Health and Kinesiology Clinical Professor Dr. Larry Leverenz. “Changes can occur, and the game can become safer, and it isn’t going to take a lot to do that.”
Nauman says with more research that leads to interventions, it is possible to make sports safer.
Talavage says understanding the mechanisms that cause traumatic brain injuries will lead to prevention.