Mild Concussions, Big Problems

New study finds athletes and veterans who suffer even minor concussions can have problems focusing in class and taking in new information.

April 17, 2018
 
Researchers study the eye movements of both healthy students and those who have experienced some form of brain trauma.

The devastating effects of repeated concussions on college athletes have been well documented -- brain disease that can lead to mood changes, concentration problems and even suicidal tendencies. What researchers haven’t captured much -- until now -- is how milder brain injuries can do the same (to a degree).

Athletes and veterans may not present overt symptoms from more minor brain injuries, but that damage can still interfere with their academics, a new study from the University of Montana and the University of Vermont has found. These students might have memory loss, issues focusing in class or vision problems -- and might not even know it. The findings were published this month in Scientific Reports, a branch of Nature Research Journal.

“Our main role hopefully is to help students with asymptomatic concussions,” said Sambit Mohapatra, one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor in rehabilitation and movement science at Vermont. “These students might have a whole hidden inner gamut of problems, but not have any symptoms.”

The researchers worked with 72 subjects, half of whom had experienced some sort of brain trauma -- either being hit directly, such as during a sporting event or in a car accident, or being exposed to some sort of blast. The average length of time since the participants experienced their concussion was about 43 months.

Researchers analyzed the eye movements of the participants and found that those with a history of mild brain trauma couldn’t track a moving laser target as well as their counterparts -- their reaction time was slowed. Their eyes also jerked erratically.

Though the students might not be aware of their eyesight problems, this is a reason for not being able to absorb information as well during lectures, Mohapatra said. Veterans especially might come back from deployment experiencing a level of post-traumatic stress that can exacerbate problems associated with concussions and other injuries, Mohapatra said. He said the two conditions share many of the same symptoms and can start a “vicious cycle” that can affect the concussed person's academics.

The study adds to the growing debate over when veterans should allowed to enroll again in active duty, and when and if athletes should be cleared to go back on the field after a blow to the head.

Both the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have faced lawsuits alleging negligence when they permitted players to return to practice and games even after they suffered from concussions.

The professional and collegiate leagues have had to shell out hefty settlements in the past. The NFL agreed to a $1 billion settlement for former players who proved lingering effects from concussions and brain injuries. And the NCAA four years ago paid $75 million in a class-action settlement, most of which was used for medical monitoring for former athletes.

But the NCAA’s money has never been for treatment, and another legal front against the association is mounting.

While concussion protocols for both college and professional players have been revised, they remain under fire -- the NFL still allows players back on the field the same day or within a few weeks.

The NCAA instructed all its member institutions in 2010 to develop plans for what happens after a concussion. The standards prior to that had been inconsistent. The NCAA did not provide comment for this article in time for publication.

Mohapatra said that colleges and universities should train their professors to help identify the symptoms associated with brain injuries. These might be subtle -- fatigue or difficulty paying attention -- but identifying and supporting these students can help them, he said. Erasing the stigma around concussions, and understanding them, knowing that they aren’t just caused by a blow to the head, is important, Mohapatra said.

He suggested that advisers talk with their athlete and veteran students about possible problems, or in the case of a larger institution, hold some sort of seminar for them.

“The brain cannot heal,” Mohapatra said. “But certain other things -- balance problems -- can easily be trained. And eye tracking can be trained. These things can be changed.”

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