Virginia Tech researchers announced this week they will be joining universities across the country as part of a venture the NCAA is calling “the most comprehensive study of concussion and head impact exposure ever conducted.”
The $30 million project, which was jointly funded by the NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense, was first announced in May as a way to increase understanding of concussions and, in turn, make sports safer. More than 10 universities are already involved in the study.
The news comes as scientists have continued to learn more about the long-term health effects of concussions over the past several years, spurring calls for rule changes and lawsuits from athletes.
Virginia Tech has been doing concussion-related research on its own for more than a decade, distinguishing itself as a leader in the field. The university has studied head injuries on Tech’s football team since 2003 and more recently local youth football leagues.
The university introduced a football helmet rating system in 2011 that used laboratory experiments to identify how well different helmet models prevented concussions. This year, Tech researchers announced it will unveil similar ratings for hockey helmets.
Tech has now joined the NCAA-backed research consortium, receiving about $1 million as one of just three schools chosen to conduct more extensive data collection than the rest.
All student athletes on Tech’s football, men’s soccer, women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse teams will be screened before and throughout the season with MRIs and blood tests. They will also wear equipment during games and practices that measures on-field head impacts.
Tech football players have worn these kinds of sensors under their helmets for more than a decade, but this study marks the first time data will be collected on athletes in sports other than football.
University researcher Stefan Duma, who will lead Tech’s research, said larger helmets are a more natural fit for the equipment but the sensor technology has improved over the past 10 years to the point they are now small enough to be stuck directly onto athletes’ skin behind their ears. That makes the equipment usable for sports like soccer.
Duma said the data will show how often athletes in different sports are being hit in the head, how hard and how their bodies react.
It will start to answer such questions as whether differences exist among the kinds of impacts men and women can safely endure.
“The simple question is how much is too much?” Duma said. “We need to know what’s OK and what’s not OK. Because it’s OK to get hit in the head, everyone does that and we’re all fine. We’ve all had head impacts over the course of our lives. But the basic question is how much is too much?
“If we understand that, we can look at changing the rules, we can look at designing better equipment for the goal of making sports as safe as possible,” he said.
Tech has already started outfitting its female soccer players with the sensors. It will monitor about 200 athletes from four sports over the next three years.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UCLA will conduct almost identical studies with their student athletes.
“It’s a massive study with a lot of components,” Duma said. “I think it’s critically important. This is the kind of study you have to do to answer some of these very difficult questions.”
This article was republished with permission from the author, Jacob Demmitt. The original article was published in The Roanoke Times.