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Science delves into the injured brain.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

University of Oregon football players are helping researchers get a better grip on what happens inside the helmets of athletes who use their heads when they should be using their feet.

Professors Li-Shan Chou and Paul van Donkelaar are looking at football players and other athletes who suffer concussions in hopes of bridging a critical gap in sports medicine. While much is known about the kinds of injuries players suffer to the body, little is known about injuries to the brain.

In addition to football players, the researchers also are working with club sports athletes as well as nonathletes who suffer head injuries. Their work could eventually identify areas of the brain most vulnerable to impacts and not only point to better treatments but also help athletic trainers determine when it's safe for a player to return to the field.

Using sophisticated motion analysis techniques as well as neurophysiological tests, they're trying to gauge how concussions affect motor control. What they've found so far is that athletes don't get over a concussion as quickly as they often do from similar blows to other parts of the body.

"We are able to pick up an abnormality in these patients up to a month after the injury," Chou said.

Chou's work centers on motion analysis, in which a computer records movement as subjects walk past a series of sensors. He's found evidence that after a concussion, the brain has a harder time coordinating physical and mental tasks.

For example, when a concussion victim is asked to walk a straight line, stepping over a small obstacle on the way, he handles the task relatively well, if somewhat slower than an uninjured person. But when the same person is asked to do the same task while reciting the months of the year backward or doing subtraction by sevens, it's a different story.

"What we're finding is they are not able to concentrate all of the mind," Chou said. "If you take away their concentration, they walk even slower and they also sway sideways a lot."

Similar results are coming from van Donkelaar's work, which measures how well the brain processes information and directs the body to react. Subjects who have had concussions react more slowly to things in their periphery and are slower in sorting out conflicting signals.

When they are asked to recite words shown on a computer and the word "blue" is shown in green letters, for instance, they are slower to respond. The difference is small but significant; where a normal person would answer within 30 to 50 milliseconds, the head-injured subjects took 100 milliseconds or more.

That's nothing to sniff at in a game like football.

"If it's a game of milliseconds and we see tens of milliseconds difference, that's significant," van Donkelaar said. "It doesn't seem like a lot, but in terms of brain time, it's a long time."

Think of a receiver running down field, trying to dodge defenders, looking for a clear path and trying to see the ball being thrown to him. His brain has to be able to do a lot of different things very fast, and if he's still recovering from a concussion, his opponents are going to have an edge.

But more important is the health and safety of the athlete, especially with head injuries. A second concussion too soon after the first can result in second impact syndrome, which is often fatal and is believed to have caused the death of an Idaho State University rugby player who suffered two head injuries during a pair of games at the UO in February.

Tonya Parker, a certified athletic trainer and a graduate student working with Chou, said trainers are asked to make important decisions about when an athlete is ready to play but they have scant information on how quickly the brain recovers from a concussion.

"We've always looked at what happens to the brain, but we've never looked at what happens when the brain is talking to the body," she said. "This is the cutting edge of determining when an athlete is ready to return to play."

Chou received a three-year, $720,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pursue the work, and he and van Donkelaar hope to land a larger grant to continue the study.

The next phase will involve using the UO's powerful magnetic resonance imaging device to find the specific areas of the brain affected by concussions, and the final step will be to develop ways to assess injuries and speed recovery.

"We are looking toward the future," Chou said. "I think we are going to make an impact."

CAPTION(S):

University of Oregon student Ryan Breslin, who is recovering from a concussion, performs a series of motion tests as part of study of head injuries. Tonya Parker monitors the reactions of a research subject as part of the UO brain injury study. Brian Davies / The Register-Guard Researcher Tonya Parker attaches light-reflecting discs to Ryan Breslin to monitor changes in his gait.
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Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Higher Education; University of Oregon researchers study athletes to learn more about how the complicated organ heals
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 23, 2004
Words:843
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