CHAPEL HILL — Researchers from the University of North Carolina and Duke will try to do something this school year that has defied parents for generations: They will try to get inside the heads of teenagers.
Specifically, the research team will be monitoring physical impacts on the heads of high school football players and also will compare MRI scans of some players’ brains taken before and after any concussions that may come during the 2013 football season.
“High school players respond differently to impacts than older athletes,” said UNC researcher Kevin Guskiewicz. “They are more at risk for serious brain injuries because their skulls are still developing.”
Guskiewicz, one of the nation’s leading researchers in the field of sports-related injuries, and other researchers associated with the project, met last week with parents of Chapel Hill High School football players to explain the study. Only players whose parents grant permission will participate.
The project, which began last year, involves multiple phases.
As part of the study, selected CHHS players will wear specially-fitted Riddell football helmets that hold accelerometers – sensors that will measure the location and intensity of hits during live action. Not only will the sensors provide data throughout the season, they will also alert trainers to “bad hits,” or patterns of poor blocking or tackling technique that put the player at greater risk.
“Part of this will involve behavior modification based on the players’ hits,” Guskiewicz said. “If we observe a series in a ‘bad hits’ profile, the staff, trainers and coaches can sit down with the player, show them recorded footage of the hit and discuss it.
“We’ll be able to say, ‘See that? That’s a 110-G (force) hit,’ and can advise the player on proper technique.
“We’re in our 10th season of collecting data, and we still don’t have that threshold of concussion combined,” Guskiewicz said. “Is it at 80 Gs? 110? No one can be sure.”
Guskiewicz, co-director with Jason P. Mihalik at the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at UNC, notes athletes in all sports nationally incur 3.8 million concussions a year. In North Carolina, most high schools will see 5 to 6 players a year suffer a concussion.
“Thankfully, the numbers have declined some since the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act,” Guskiewicz said.
Jaquan Waller, a 16-year-old running back at Greenville Rose, and 15-year-old linebacker Matthew Gfeller at Winston-Salem Reynolds died days apart in 2008 after head injuries suffered during high school football games that season – injuries that “could been managed more carefully,” Guskiewicz said.
The Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act took effect in the 2011-12 school year, making North Carolina the 21st state with such a law, and now 48 states have such a law on the books. It requires schools to have a training program, detailing how to spot concussions, and mandates that any athlete exhibiting symptoms of a head injury must immediately cease participation and can return only after cleared by a doctor or licensed athletic trainer.
Anticipating that some injuries will be inevitable, the current research project also involves a series of MRIs of selected players by a combined team of Duke and UNC radiologists, noted UNC nurse Kathy Duncan who, like Guskiewicz, has had a son play football at CHHS. Should one of the pre-screened players suffer a concussion, researchers will have a pre-injury MRI to compare with post-injury images.
“Duke may not make for the best partners on the football field or basketball court, but in the medical field, they make for excellent partners,” Guskiewicz said.