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Interview: Inside one of the world’s biggest concussion studies

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Concussion is a huge concern across the US military and in sports. In 2018, 19,000 military personnel were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, while college athletes had an average of 10,500 concussions for past five years.

Despite the numbers, many say there’s a lack of research to inform ways that government and industry can best tackle this problem.

In response, the largest prospective concussion study was formed to fill the gaps in understanding, to see what recovery from a concussion looks like in athletes and cadets.

More than 44,000 people have since enrolled in the CARE (concussion assessment, research and education) consortium since its inception in 2014, across 30 universities and four military service academies across the US.

It has so far captured data on more than 4,300 concussions. The study is funded by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Department of Defence.

It’s believed that NCAA athletes represent the best model for what happens with concussion in the military.

Researchers involved in the study hope their findings will allow them to predict what happens to people after a concussion; information which can then help inform protocols that could become the standard for universities and the military.

Steve Broglio, associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Kinesiology and departments of neurology and physical medicine and rehabilitation, and one of the project’s leaders, says the initial aim was to be able to define the acute history of concussion, and see what happens to people after they have a concussion, establishing both a clinical arm and a research arm.

“In the first days of the project, we enrolled 35,000 civilian athletes and military service cadets to try to understand what was going on,” he says.

“We captured this by understanding their clinical natural history,” such as if they went to the doctor about their symptoms.

“The second arm of the project was to understand what’s going on a biological level, using genetics and biomarkers and advanced imaging, to see if recovery on a biological level reflects the medical level,” Broglio says.

In 2018, the team moved on to the second phase of the project, which was to understand the persistent and long-term effects of concussion.

“We continued to enrol people and we now have 55,000 participants. Each one receives a baseline exam when they enter institutions,” Broglio says.

“The second phase is now starting to get exit data as gradates do another evaluation to see if their concussion has had any effect on their brain functioning.

“In parallel, we’re also reaching out to people who graduated from intuitions, so they can do online evaluations to see if the long-term reflects just after they graduated, and within the first five years of gradation. The goal now is to start tracking people for their whole life to see the trajectory, and to see what percentage of people have issues,” he says.

Thanks to its findings so far, the consortium has participated in setting the concussion policy for the NCA, which outlines how concussions are managed, Broglio says.

So far, CARE has published around 60 papers relating to various findings, and Broglio says some of the consortium’s findings have had more impact than others.

In general, he says, findings that chime with a wider body of research that came to the same conclusions are more likely to help enact changes in policy because they will carry more weight.

“Some of what we’ve found doesn’t match what other people have found, some things have been consistent with other studies. When it matches, we can say, ‘Right, we need to change something’,” he says. This research is unlike any other, he says, partly because of how far-reaching it is.

“We were interested in getting a broad understanding of what’s going on across all cohorts. The very first goal is to understand the natural history of concussions, and the recovery rate of athletes and cadets participating in multiple levels and across different sports and different sexes.

“Prior to the project, most of the literature focused on male contact collision sport athletes, such as American football, maybe ice hockey and lacrosse. We have close to 50 per cent women in the study, across every NCA sport.”

These sports include basketball, baseball, ice hockey, water polo and cross country. The areas with the most reported concussions, according to the NCAA, are women’s soccer, football, ice hockey and wrestling.CARE’s most recent research, which is yet unpublished, shows that there are different recovery rates based on the sport.

“No one has ever shown this,” Broglio says.“There’s almost an identical recovery rate between men and women that hasn’t been found before, and which we didn’t anticipate. It’s largely been recorded that women take longer to recover, but when matched with equivalent sports, men and women’s recovery rates are virtually identical, which is a pretty significant finding.

“We’ve also had a series of papers looking at the cognitive performance of contact athletes relative to non-contact. They perform the same, if not better. This, he says, runs counter to the school of thought that repeated blows to the head causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease which causes severe and irreparable brain damage.”

Some of those things are different to what’s been previously reported, which also opens the door for more research and conversation,” he says.

As well as research, the project is also focused on education for athletes, trainers, coaches and families.

Funding for CARE expires in one yea, and the consortium is in the process of submitting for the next five-year cycle.

“We could be around for as short as 12 months, or it could be another five years. Ideally, it would be another 50 years, so we can track participants,” he says.

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