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Stout study: Too many hits may affect brain function in football players

USC-Aiken student Emmanuella Otabor and UW-Stout student Jade Austin perform an auditory attention test on fellow researcher Nathan Olinger. The UW-Stout students are part of an interdisciplinary team studying effects of head impacts on cognitive function. (Submitted photo)1 / 4
UW-Stout students Tim Pastika, USC-Aiken student Emmanuella Otabor and UW-Stout student Jade Austin prepare the electrode cap for an auditory attention test. (Submitted photo) 2 / 4
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UW-Stout football players line up for a play at a game earlier this season. (Submitted photo) 4 / 4

MENOMONIE -- Fall is here and to many people that means football, either watching it on TV or from a bleacher on a cold, starry night.

At UW-Stout, football also is on the minds of Professor Desiree Budd and an interdisciplinary team of faculty members and students.

They are engaged in a two-year study on the possible long-term effects of concussive and subconcussive sports-related repetitive head impacts on cognitive function.

From the study, some worrisome issues seem to be emerging with indications that even subconcussive hits may affect brain function in athletes within three years.

The team is composed of Budd, psychology; Daniel Krenzer, school psychology; Jo Hopp, physics; and undergraduate students trained in research processes, Nathan Olinger, of St. Paul majoring in psychology; and Tim Pastika, of Kenosha majoring in cognitive science.

The study, initiated by a student in Budd’s cognitive science research class in 2012, consists of test groups of male students at UW-Stout who are divided into three categories.

--Individuals who played football in high school and experienced a concussion or concussions

--Individuals who played football in high school who did not experience concussive injuries

--Individuals who played in nonimpact sports, such as track

Study participants are given a head-impact survey and three tests: auditory attention, visual memory, and paper and pencil copying.

The paper and pencil tests are designed to measure efficiency and speed of information processing.

For the auditory attention tests, subjects wear an electrode cap to measure brain waves while they direct their attention to different tones.

For the visual memory task, subjects are instructed to move their eyes to a location where a flash occurs while a camera tracks the speed and accuracy of their eye movements.

Possible negative consequences

Preliminary data suggests that “sports-related subconcussive impacts -- those that do not result in symptoms consistent with a concussion diagnosis -- may have subtle negative consequences on cognitive function one to three years later,” Budd said.

Data indicates the existence of “differences between the groups regarding the brain wave components used as a signature of attention and the reaction times of memory-guided saccades -- eye movements -- but not the processing speed measured by the paper and pencil tests,” she said.

Olinger and Pastika presented their preliminary findings Sept. 9 at the annual meetings of the Society for Psychophysiological Research in Atlanta and in May at the Midwest Psychological Association in Chicago.

Parents and fans alike cringe when players experience head impacts during games. The player is taken off the field and given a sideline test. Depending on the outcome, the player may be kept out of the remainder of the game or for longer.

However, “high school sideline tests may not always be valid. There is a need for more sensitive ways to detect injury,” Krenzer said.

“This line of work is divisive,” he said. “People fall on one side or the other of this issue.”

Since Budd started the research, it has grown into a collaborative extracurricular project and has caught the eye of a neuropsychologist at Marshfield Clinic in Eau Claire and of a professor and students at University of South Carolina-Aiken.

Two students from USC-Aiken visited UW-Stout during the summer for three weeks of training. They developed additional tests to measure balance and emotion that Budd’s team will add to their protocol, she said. Some evidence exists that individuals who experience repeated concussive injuries may suffer irregularities in emotional control and balance, Budd said.

The Aiken students also are collecting data at their college. Budd expects data will be collected for another year.

The undergraduate students received a UW-Stout Student Research Grant to pay for recruitment posters for the male volunteers.