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Student-Athletes to Get Brain Scans Before Season, After Injury

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Copyright 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
October 10, 2013 Thursday
SPORTS; Pg. D1
899 words
UNM, nonprofit initiate concussion protocol;
Student-athletes will have MRI brain scans before season and after injuries
Mike Bush Journal Staff Writer

If all goes as planned, a brain scan will soon become as routine for many University of New Mexico athletes as an annual physical checkup.

UNM and the nonprofit organization Mind Research Network on Wednesday announced a concussion-assessment project called Brain Safe that will regularly look inside the brains of more than 200 Lobos with magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

The athletes will receive MRIs at the beginning of every season and after any serious sport-related injuries. The program is already under way, with initial scans taken this fall of some football players, female volleyball players, and male and female soccer and basketball players.

The goal is to learn more about the long-term effects of brain injuries suffered by athletes in contact sports by comparing images taken over a period of time and eventually minimizing the impact of concussions.

"Our top concern is the safety of our athletes," UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said. "This is one more tool for our team doctors to use to make sure that when we return a student-athlete to play, we are making that decision based on the very best medical information available."

The sometimes deadly long-term effects of concussions, particularly repeat concussions, has become a major topic of conversation and concern in athletics in general and football in particular. Just last month, three former college football players filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, among others, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The lawsuit contends the association failed to educate them about the risks of concussions and did not do enough to prevent, diagnose or treat brain injuries.

Meanwhile, in August, the NFL agreed to settle a lawsuit for $765 million, most of which would compensate former players and families of deceased players who have suffered cognitive injury, including the families of players who committed suicide after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. About $100 million of the settlement amount is to be used for baseline medical exams, research and education.

According to its website, the Mind Research Network is an independent organization based in Albuquerque dedicated to advancing the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and brain injury. It is an interdisciplinary association of scientists located at universities, national laboratories and research centers around the world, and is focused on imaging technology and its emergence as an integral element of neuroscience investigation.

Dr. Kent Kiehl, a UNM psychology professor and a researcher at the MRN, said the brain scans are noninvasive. They examine brain structure; chemistry; connectivity; fibers or "wiring"; and function, how blood flow is moving. Together, the different sequences can provide a "very comprehensive evaluation of any potential problems to an athlete," he said. By comparing images, baseline MRI scans can be precisely compared to post-injury scans.

Kiehl, the originator and director of the Brain Safe project, said the approach will give scientists a better understanding of the changes a brain undergoes after an injury.

"This is the first large-scale project to gather state-of-the-art MRI data on athletes' brains at the beginning of their collegiate career," Kiehl said. "By performing the initial baseline scans, we are in the best possible position to examine whether sports-related impacts alter, or not, the function and structure of the brain. We can also track carefully brain recovery and help to inform concussion assessment and treatment policy."

In addition to Kiehl, the team includes Drs. Andrew Mayer of the MRN and Vince Calhoun, a distinguished professor of electrical engineering at UNM.

In an internal UNM memorandum, Bruce Cherrin, the university's chief procurement officer, said: "Any athletes who have a sports-related concussion during the season will receive additional behavioral, blood and brain MRI data collection."

The follow-up scans will typically be conducted within 72 hours of the concussive event, he said. Moreover, additional scans will be completed as needed to evaluate the athlete's recovery.

Kiehl said he hopes eventually to include other sports in the project, but that the university chose the sports with a high rate of concussions. "I would welcome others," he said. "I would like to scan all 500 athletes at the university."

UNM President Bob Frank, who ran a brain-injury program for eight years while at the University of Missouri, said he believes Brain Safe is essential to preventing long-term consequences of concussions.

"This could be a game changer," Frank said. "Combining our mind research and our athletics program to create a protocol that will measure the individual against him- or herself is one of the most advanced and sophisticated approaches in the country."

Frank said UNM is proud to be leading the way in the cutting-edge approach to an issue of critical concern in the athletic world. The program will likely be offered to other universities, Kiehl said, but it made sense to start at UNM.

Brain Safe is supported by Perfection Honda, which is providing a transport vehicle for the program.

The UNM Board of Regents approved the university's participation in the project this week. It had been tentatively OK'd by the Purchasing Department in September. Initially, Brain Safe is expected to cost the university $500,000 annually for three years.

JOURNAL FILE New Mexico quarterback Clayton Mitchem (12) displayed concussion symptoms after the NMSU game.
JOURNAL FILE Lobo quarterback Cole Gautsche (8) has suffered concussions during his UNM career.
October 10, 2013

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