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TGen, ASU Concussion Research Continues Into Second Year

(Photo by Peter Vander Stoep - Sun Devil Athletics)
ASU football players during a game.

A year ago we reported on a partnership between Arizona State University, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, and football equipment maker Riddell to research impacts to the head

Last year, about 40 student-athletes on ASU’s football team voluntarily wore helmets that provided real-time head impact data. They also gave biological samples to measure molecular changes that may occur from concussive and sub-concussive hits. While many teams record impact data, comparing it to biological samples is unique to ASU.

The research project has resumed for another season. Dr. Matthew Huentelman, Associate Professor of Neurogenomics at TGen, said a key research question leads the project.

“How hard does an impact have to be to change something about the brain chemistry or structure that results in the release of something we can detect in a peripheral fluid?" Huentelman said. "In other words a blood, a urine or a saliva sample.”

Huentelman has been investigating medical issues with the brain and describes the importance of certain bodily fluids, what he calls “circulating biomarkers.”

“When that head impact happens, we disrupt how the cells communicate to each other in the brain," Huentelman said. "So how brain cells link up with other brain cells, that’s really important for proper functioning of the brain. And sometimes those connections can get disrupted, and that can lead to the release of molecules in the bloodstream, or in the urine and the saliva that we can detect.”

Data is collected the morning after every game and after select practices and is then compared against seismic-like data from the Sideline Response System.

Thad Ide is with football equipment company Riddell, which developed the system.

“The Sideline Response System is a way of measuring actual on-field head impacts that players are seeing during the routine course of practices and games and transmitting that data back to a sideline computer,” Ide said.

Imagine three tracks of information next to one another. The first track is video from game and practices that every team records and uses. In this case it’s used to look at how hits are taken. The second track is the data recorded by the Sideline Response System measuring the severity of the impact. The third track is the data recorded from the circulating biomarkers. While the first two tracks are happening for other teams, it is the addition of the third track from TGen that makes this project unique.

So what would this research eventually look like on the field?

“We think this kind of research can help us get insights that will lead to better football helmet technology. You know, what types of impacts or impact profiles are leading to these measureable medical changes?" Ide said. "And, can we develop helmets that reduce those types of forces?”

Another option is equipment that responds to contact with the proteins present in bodily fluids, such as mouthguards. It could be hard for an athlete to shake off a possible concussion when their coach sees objective evidence from their mouthguard changing color.

Right now, doctors and coaches worry players downplay concussive or sub-concussive symptoms. Freshman defensive tackle Tayshawn Smallwood echos the sentiments of many young players.

“I had my head rung real bad," Smallwood said. "But, that’s the thing where I don’t want to go get checked out cause I don’t want to miss any games.”

If a player is not honest with doctors, it can affect a diagnosis. ASU’s team physician Dr. Roger McCoy explains that even though current tests used to diagnose a concussion are fairly accurate, they are still relatively subjective.

“It’s a clinical decision, it’s not just based on one test," McCoy said. "It’s from counting backward from a hundred using threes and memorizing four things and then going back again and seeing if you can remember them a few minutes later. Along with some balancing and the symptoms score."

That score is just like when a doctor asks you the level of pain you are feeling on a one to ten scale. That was used on Jason Franklin, a junior linebacker in the second year of the study. He recently suffered a concussion and describes how the research can help his recovery.

“They’ll be like ‘yeah, there’s some differences in your blood, or there’s some differences in your urine,’" Franklin said. "That’s probably what I’m going to ask the guy right now, cause I feel better, and I’m trying to get cleared and I’m going to say ‘hey, do you see any improvements?’”

Back at TGen, Huentelman describes how several years of data on the same players can be critical to ensure the success of the project.

“One of the powerful aspects of being able to study a team, being able to follow players throughout their entire collegiate career, is that year-to-year change in their data," said Huentelman. "And that’s really interesting to us.”

Though the project may only be a year in, and the team of researchers and players are still cautious while collecting data, there is a great sense of optimism in helping resolve one of sport’s greatest challenges.

Andrew Bernier, Ph.D., is the Senior Field Correspondent for Science and Innovation at KJZZ with more than a decade of academic and professional experience in scientific research, instruction and broadcasting.