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Brain Researchers Seek to Uncover Effects of Non-Concussive Repetitive Head Impacts in Young Athletes

Milwaukee, August 14, 2019 – While the medical community focuses much attention on the long-term effects of concussions on athletes in contact sports, non-concussive repetitive head impacts happen much more often. These injuries can lead to worsened brain function later in life, yet little is known about their physiological processes. Brain researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) were recently awarded a nearly $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund a five-year study on the effects of repetitive head impacts on middle and high school athletes.

Michael McCrea, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and co-director of the MCW Center for Neurotrauma Research at MCW, and Yang Wang, MD, PhD, associate professor of imaging research at MCW, will lead a study that combines state-of-the-art neuroimaging and biomechanical metrics to identify key brain function processes associated with repetitive head impact exposure in young football and soccer players.

Using an impact monitoring mouth guard system with smart technology that can measure head impact exposure, researchers will compare middle and high school athletes in contact sports (football and soccer) to athletes of the same age in non-contact sports. Participants will be assessed right before and after each season for two consecutive game and practice seasons.
“This study has the potential to enhance the capacity to detect non-concussive injury due to repetitive head impacts, monitor recovery and influence future treatment interventions,” said Dr. McCrea and Dr. Wang.

Other MCW collaborators on this project include Alexander Cohen, research scientist in the Center for Imaging Research; Jennifer Hill, program director of the Brain Injury Research Program; Timothy Meier, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery; Lindsay Nelson, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery and neurology; Alok Shah, research engineer in the Department of Neurosurgery; Brian Stemper, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery; and Aniko Szabo, PhD, associate professor of biostatistics.

This research will build upon Dr. McCrea’s previous studies, which focused on the acute effects of a concussion on the brain immediately following an injury. Findings showed that concussions can be caused by not only major hits but also by an accumulation of lesser impacts over several days, and that concussion effects often linger in the brain days after athletes no longer feel symptoms. These findings have informed return-to-play protocol at high school and college football programs internationally, resulting in a great reduction in same-season repeat concussions.

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