Work prompts calls for more research into contact sport concussion

Work prompts calls for more research into contact sport concussion

Dylan Powell knows all about the stresses and strains of top flight sport.

Currently on placement as a physio to help Cambridge United’s squad reach peak fitness for the coming football season, the players of another sport have caught the attention of the University of Cumbria MSc student.

Rugby has the highest incidence of sport related concussion of any contact sport, something that has led to calls to limit or even ban contact training sessions during the season to reduce the risk of brain injury.

“I played a lot of rugby at the University of Exeter during my undergraduate degree in Human Biosciences and my interest in concussion in rugby was sparked during my playing days,” Dylan says. “Despite considerable media interest and research, the underlying relationship between participation in rugby union and the manifestation of concussion is poorly understood. To address this problem, novel, non-invasive technologies have been developed to measure brain health in a quantative and real-time manner.”

Working with researchers at the University of North Carolina in the U.S. Dylan made use of the technology – known as a ‘Brain Gauge somatosensory system’ produced by Corticalmetrics based in North Carolina  - which provides a diagnostic system for overall brain health. Five university level players were monitored during six games in the 2017/18 season. Their reaction time, sequential and simultaneous amplitude discrimination (the ability to tell the difference between two or more factors) and reaction time variability was compared to four non rugby-playing students.

In addition students were asked to complete a questionnaire to monitor changes in symptoms across the 6 week testing period. 

“There were significant differences between individuals for three of the four brain health measurements while only one of the four brain health measurements (SIMAD) displayed statistically significant changes over the six-week testing period,” Dylan said adding that the work suggests the somatosensory system accurately measured fluctuations in brain health and provided quantative baseline data to support future studies. The results also indicated that slower reaction times were associated with symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, feeling depressed and poor memory.

“Dylan’s research makes an important contribution to our understanding of brain health in rugby union,” Caroline Smith, Senior Lecturer and Physiotherapy Professional Lead, said. “Although this is a relatively small study it has demonstrated how technological developments can be used to ensure the safety of people engaging in contact sports.  We hope to see further studies carried out with bigger sample sizes over longer periods of time and will be looking to see if there are implications for using brain health monitoring in other areas of health care, for example in people with neurological conditions and acquired brain injury.”