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U. OREGON (US) — The ability to focus and switch tasks readily amid distractions was compromised for up to two months among high school athletes who suffered concussions, according to a new study.

The discovery suggests that some athletes may need longer recovery periods than current practices dictate to lower the risk of subsequent concussions. Conventional wisdom says that typical recovery from concussion takes 7 to 10 days.

“The differences we detected may be a matter of milliseconds between a concussed person and a control subject, but as far as brain time goes that difference for a linebacker returning to competition too soon could mean the difference between another injury or successfully preparing to safely tackle an oncoming running back,” says David Howell, a graduate student in the Department of Human Physiology at the University of Oregon.

The findings are based on cognitive exercises used five times over the two months with a pair of sensitive computer-based measuring tools—the attentional network test and the task-switching test.

Published online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the study focuses on the effects of concussions to the frontal region of the brain, which is responsible for working, or short-term, memory and executive function, says Li-Shan Chou, professor of human physiology and director of the Motion Analysis Laboratory.

“If a person goes back to the playing field without a full recovery, that person is put into great danger of being re-injured,” Chou says. “In any given season, if you suffer a concussion, the chances of your suffering a second one is three to six times higher and suffering a third is eight times higher. There are accumulations in this kind of injury. It doesn’t go away easily.”

A big unknown, the researchers say, is just how serious such injuries are for adolescents, whose brains are still developing. It could be the brain can recover more easily, or such injuries could continue to produce deficits that last a lifetime.

“We just don’t know,” Chou says, adding that most previous studies have involved college-aged athletes and older adults.

A silent epidemic

Each year, there are 300,000 to 500,000 mild traumatic brain injury incidents, or concussions, with 100,000 tied to football, Chou says. He cites a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that called such injuries a silent epidemic, with sports-related concussions in youths rising by 60 percent in the last decade.

Improvised explosive devices used in warfare are also a source of concussions, he adds.

Through an arrangement with Eugene-area schools, 20 high school athletes who had suffered a concussion—primarily football players but also others from soccer, volleyball, and wrestling—were assessed within 72 hours of injury and then again one week, two weeks, a month, and two months later.

  • “After two months following the concussions, these individuals were still significantly impaired in their executive function, compared to age-matched, activity-matched, and gender-matched control populations,” says co-author Louis Osternig, professor emeritus of human physiology and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Each of the subjects, whose diagnosis was made by a certified athletic trainer and/or physician, was matched with a healthy control subject of the same sex, body size, age, and sport.

Osternig, also a certified athletic trainer, notes that self-reports by the subjects about how they were feeling sometimes were at odds with test results, which continued to show subtle deficits in cognitive functioning. The researchers also note anecdotal reports from concussed athletes and their parents of declines in academic performance during the two-month period.

“The brain is the controller of our body movement,” Chou says. “If you have a brain injury, are there any differences that we can pick up in the way a subject moves the body? In this lab, we are using motion analysis as a way to detect any deficiencies or abnormalities of body movement.”

The lab’s goal, for now, is to disseminate the findings to the public and to talk to parents, athletic trainers and, perhaps, coaches directly to say: “These are the facts. We may not be able to draw any line on what clinically should or shouldn’t be done. However, these are our observations based on our scientific testing.”

Additional data linking the deficits found in cognitive testing to the subjects’ gait—their task-shifting abilities while walking—currently are being analyzed in the ongoing project.

Funding was provided by the Department of Defense Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center, the National Athletic Trainers Association, Veterans Administration, and a joint UO-PeaceHealth Oregon Region collaboration program. Researchers from the University of British Columbia contributed to the study.

Source: University of Oregon

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