UVa researchers study effects of hard hitting sports on the brain

CHARLOTTSVILLE, Va. – How do hard hits on the sports field affect athletes’ brains? That’s the question Dr. Jason Druzgal, assistant professor of neuroradiology at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, wants to answer.

“[We’re studying to] see if we can detect any effects of repeated sub-concussive hits to the head, before somebody gets too old, ” Druzgal said.

They also want to find “better ways to diagnose concussion around the time that the concussions happen,” he said.

They’ve recruited several athlete volunteers, who play sports like football, soccer and lacrosse, at college and high school levels. Using a patch from Seattle based company X2 Biosystems, researchers affix adhesive sensors behind the ears of players.

“We can get a record over the course of the season of who is getting hit harder and more often to the head,” Druzgal said.

Historically, sensors have only been attached to helmets, but Druzgal said athletes who play all kinds of sports can wear the patches.

They hope the results will fill a void in the medical research community.

“We don’t have any sort of physiologic markers that we can measure as people are going through a career to see if any changes are happening in their brain that we should be concerned about,” Druzgal said.

The information from the sensors will be used with the results of advanced MRI scans taken at the beginning and the end of the season.

“What we’re looking for is what their baseline brain function is before an athletic season, and we’re also measuring them again at the end of the season,” Druzgal said.

Lately several former NFL players have claimed they suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) from what doctors suspect are years of taking big hits on the field.

Druzgal said the data may show that safety rules need to be tightened during games.

“What I am hoping to find is that we can make the game safer for some people,” Druzgal said.

There isn’t a lot of data when it comes to female sports because of the limitations of helmet-based sensors in the past. Druzgal says this study will be able to include women who play sports like lacrosse and soccer and offer new insight into the effects of high impact sports on the female body.

Druzgal says Virginia researchers began collecting results and monitoring athletes back in July. They hope to begin releasing their findings from the study next year.

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