UBC researchers among several investigating concussion through NFL-funded initiative

It’s one of the hottest topics in sport currently, and UBC researchers are getting support with studying the controversial issue thanks to National Football League (NFL) funding: concussions.

A 3-year program that involves researchers from nine Canadian universities, including UBC representatives and led by kinesiology researcher Carolyn Emery from the University of Calgary, will investigate concussions in youth sport with the goal of developing strategies to properly prevent, diagnose and treat the notorious injuries.

The initiative, named the SHRed (Surveillance in High Schools to Reduce Concussions and Consequences of Concussions in Youth) Concussions program, was recently granted $12 million in funding by the scientific advisory board of the NFL.

“We are very grateful to the NFL for funding this unique groundbreaking project that brings together the best of Canada’s concussion researchers toward a comprehensive strategy in concussion prevention, diagnosis and treatment,” said Cheryl Wellington, professor in UBC’s faculty of medicine who is leading the national blood biomarker network for the program at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, in a press release.

The three-stage program will evaluate Canadian high school athletes in sports like ice hockey and football where concussions are prevalent. The researchers will be tasked with assessing symptoms of concussed athletes to better understand the nature of the injury so more effective diagnostic methods can be created.

“Concussions are difficult to diagnose and treat,” said Dr. Paul van Donkelaar, a professor at UBC’s Okanagan campus and one of the researcher involved in the program, in a press release. “Our research has shown that they can disrupt the flow of blood to the brain, altering the supply of oxygen, glucose and nutrients. This can affect the brain’s ability to function, causing symptoms like headache, dizziness and blurred vision.”

The program announcement comes on the heels of several legal cases involving concussions in professional sports.

Recently, the National Hockey League (NHL) reached a tentative settlement with retired players who sued the league over how they dealt with concussions. The athletes accused the NHL of withholding information about the consequences of repetitive brain injuries and failing to provide the necessary resources to prevent them.

The retired players who filed the lawsuit will receive a share of the $19 million to help cover the medical costs from the side effects of their concussions.

This is nowhere near the $765 million that the NFL gave their former players for medical treatment back in 2013.

The NFL is especially a lightening rod for criticism on the topic. Since Dr. Bennet Omalu first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain of late Pittsburgh Steeler centre Mike Webster, the league has been defending their sport as the evidence continues to suggest that football is one sport where concussions are particularly prevalent.

According to the SHRed's press release, although professional sports do receive most of the publicity around concussions, youth sports are annually responsible for more than half of the concussions diagnosed in Canada and the United States.

The goal then will be for the researchers to gain a greater understanding of the nature of concussions not only to help professional athletes, but also to make youth sport safer since Statistics Canada estimates around half of children between the ages of 5 and 14 annually participate in sports.

Fortunately, the program appears to have the brain power to dive into the issue.

“This project brings together leading sport and injury prevention researchers across Canada to educate children, youth and their families about concussion,” said Dr. Ian Pike, director of the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit at BC Children’s Hospital and professor in UBC’s faculty of medicine, in the press release. “This work will not only save lives, but keep our kids active and healthy.”