Head Injury Study Scores Early Touchdown

Author: Kathy Mayer
ECE’s Thomas Talavage is co-leading a pioneering study of high school football players’ head traumas. It is the first to use magnetic resonance imaging and cognitive testing pre-season and again after hits to the head — including those registering less than concussion-level. The multidisciplinary team is learning that cognitive deficiencies can occur even without a concussion, indicating that increased screening after minor hits may be warranted, and that brains, like bodies, need rest after injury.

When Steve Bultinck played football years ago at Mishawaka Marian High School in Indiana, helmets weren’t as sophisticated as today’s and players who “could follow the finger moved in front of your eyes and remember your name” likely got right back in the game after a blow to the head, he says. “Your brain was like a clapper inside a bell.”

Helmet Sensors Measure Impact

A view inside of a helmet with accelerometers in place.

Now, when his son Colin Bultinck takes to the field for Lafayette’s Jefferson High School, it’s with a helmet in the latest safety design and sensors that measures every hit’s impact.

He’s one of 21 players participating in a groundbreaking study co-led by ECE associate professor Thomas Talavage and funded by an Indiana State Department of Health grant. Evaluations began with pre-season cognitive and MRI studies, repeated whenever sensors measured significant impacts.

“It’s great because kids are playing earlier in their lives, and the one thing you never really measure is the lingering impact of the hits they take,” the elder Bultinck says. “He took a couple of pretty nasty hits, and we’d go in for a follow-up MRI.”

Parent Jeff Vice was equally enthused about his son Curtis Vice participating in the study. “My wife Carol and I both work in the medical field, so we believe monitoring these kids is a great thing.”

A picture of a Purdue helmet and the accelerometer system from which one may derive a sense of scale.

His son, who suffered a concussion during the season and had a follow-up MRI, is all for the study. “I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and why not hop aboard. At this age, my brain is still developing and getting everything going up there, so I think it’s good.”

Six accelerometers were installed in each helmet. The Head Impact Telemetry System produced by New Hampshire-based Simbex LLC sends real-time information to a processor on the sidelines. “Every time there’s a blow, they estimate the direction and magnitude,” Talavage says.

In all, researchers tallied 16,000 impacts during Jefferson’s practice and fall 2009 season. One player alone took 1,400 hits. Pre-season MRIs and cognitive tests provided a baseline for post-injury test comparisons.

Researchers are also watching game videos to learn how hits happen and why players may be affected differently by similar hits, Talavage says. “It’s terribly fun, terribly time consuming and terribly enjoyable.”

What they learn will provide insights for coaches and improved safety for players.

Hits Without Concussion Prove Damaging

“We’ve learned that players can experience cognitive deficits without experiencing a concussion, so concussions as presently defined are not all of it,” Talavage says. “There probably needs to be increased screening.”

The HITS system which collects the acceleration information.

Because gridiron player Bultinck is considering the medical sports field, he finds the study intriguing. “It was a great opportunity,” he says. “I thought it was real interesting. I’d never had an MRI before, and it was interesting how they tested and followed up for comparison.”

Done on computer, the cognitive testing put his memory to work, Bultinck says. “They gave us pictures to look at once and then again. If there were new ones the second time, we had to punch a button. Another was a whole bunch of words, and another red circles and blue squares.”

Jefferson High School athletic trainer Jeff Clevenger is enthusiastic about the study. “We were flattered and honored that they would think of us. There just is not enough good data out there to find out what’s going on with impacts, especially at the high school level. Any time you can get information, it will help people all over.”

More Players, Teams, Applications Ahead

The next stage is applying the information, Talavage says. “Now, football players are told not to play for a few days after a concussion, but to still do their schoolwork. We’re treating brain injuries differently than physical injuries, and in a much-less-safe manner. Maybe the brain needs to rest, too, so we should tell them to lie in a dark room.”

Plans are to repeat the study at Jefferson High School this fall, possibly with more teammates, to expand to other schools and other sports, and potentially to follow players over time. Because head injuries also occur in automobile accidents and on battlefields, applications extend well beyond sports, Talavage says.

“It’s a field that is poorly understood,” he says. “Our goal is to get a handle on what’s taking place.”