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Brown research tries to uncover the mysteries of sports concussions

As both professional and collegiate athletes continue to get bigger, faster and stronger, the risk of serious and lasting injury also continues to reach new and increasingly dangerous heights. With faster pitching, harder checking and bigger hitting comes even more potential damage — an issue that can have long-term consequences but remains largely ignored until recently.

In the last year, health concerns over concussions in football have been the subject of headlines in newspapers across the country. Concussions in football have long been a common occurrence — just ask Troy Aikman, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback who, after 12 seasons and 10 major concussions, was forced to hang up his cleats. More recently, thanks to new discoveries made at universities and labs around the country, concussions and their links to brain trauma, neurological disorders and Alzheimer's disease have taken center stage. Nowhere is this more true than at Brown.

Since the fall of 2007, the Department of Athletics, in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health, Virginia Tech University and Dartmouth, has participated in a study to help researchers unravel the mysteries surrounding concussions. Spearheaded by Professor of Orthopaedics Joseph Crisco, this 5-year, $3.6 million study looks to concretely determine the causes of concussions by examining the location and impact magnitude of the blows to the head that athletes receive via sensors in the helmets of football and hockey.

"The six sensors we put in players' helmets are like accelerometers in airbags," said Crisco. "They measure in real time how hard you get hit — in essence, head acceleration — and where you get hit."

Players who put the new equipment in their helmets generally do not notice the difference, said Head Athletic Trainer Russell Fiore.

"Usually what will happen is, the first two or three days, it feels different and then you just get used to it," Fiore said. "The majority don't mind having them in, but some people just can't wear them — their helmets get too snug."

But despite having players wear the sensors in both practice and games for three years now, researchers have not yet discovered a link between biomechanics and concussions, Crisco said. "We just don't have enough data."

The study's progress, along with other concussion-related topics such as detection, post-concussion effects and treatment methods, will be thoroughly discussed during a Brown University Athletics Colloquium on the subject scheduled for Monday. Sean Morey '99, NFL Players Association co-chair of the Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, will be on hand with Crisco and other experts in the field.


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