Leagues launch concussion study

Updated: June 19, 2012, 2:27 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

The Big Ten Conference and the Ivy League are combining their brain power to study the effects of head injuries in sports.

The two conferences on Tuesday announced a major, co-sponsored research partnership to examine and address concussions and other head injuries among athletes.

Each conference recently launched its own concussion research initiative, but the collaboration will pool academic resources in an effort to better assess injuries from a physical and behavioral standpoint, and improve athlete education and welfare.

The pact will involve athletes from both leagues who volunteer to be evaluated. (The Big Ten and Ivy League have more than 17,500 combined athletes.) It will form a joint network of neurologists, neuropsychologists, neurosurgeons, sports medicine specialists and others who can evaluate athletes when they arrive on campus, during their playing careers and after they're finished playing.

"If we can pull it off, and there's a good chance we can do it, this would be the largest research undertaking," said Dr. Dennis Molfese, the director of the center for brain, biology and behavior at the University of Nebraska. "The big problem with concussion research in the past is you end up looking at people who suffer a concussion, but you never know what they were like before they experienced a concussion. So that's one thing, from a scientific standpoint, to have a level where you can do this.

"It's quite unique to be able to track large groups of individuals over time, knowing what their state was before they experienced the concussion."

The study hinges on both short-term and long-term participation by athletes, who must agree to be evaluated.

Nebraska recently conducted head-injury studies with its women's soccer team and its football team. According to Molfese, 65 Nebraska football players agreed to participate in the research.

"These are college students with a lot of their lives ahead," Molfese said. "Their future is very important to them, so many of them would be willing and excited about participating."

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Ivy League executive director Robin Harris began discussing the collaboration in September.

The Big Ten established a leaguewide concussion-management plan in 2010, and the Ivy League developed several methods to curb football-related concussions in 2011 after a yearlong review.

Although both leagues have established basic concussion guidelines and have held events to discuss head injuries, a full-scale research endeavor involving 20 schools and thousands of athletes across a variety of sports is "unprecedented," Harris said.

"I go back to Teddy Roosevelt and how he called the presidents (together in 1905-06) and how the Ivy League was involved and the Big Ten schools, too, to form the NCAA and look at the welfare of athletes," Harris said. "I think we're at a similar juncture."

"We've got a brand, they've got a brand," Delany added. "Under it are great research institutions, and under it you've got 17,000-18,000 athletes. We thought it was natural to take on the initiative."

The leagues first will attempt to agree on a set of behavioral tests, diagnostic tests and neuroimaging tests administered to all athletes when they arrive on campus and before their seasons begin. Although individual laboratories on Big Ten and Ivy League campuses already conduct concussion research, standardizing the process will help as a massive database of information is created.

The next step will be securing federal funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health. Molfese, who directs collaborative research efforts for the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the Big Ten's internal academic association, already has reached out to the NIH.

"The history and the reputations of the 20 institutions involved give us a leg up in securing that funding," Delany said. "This is about the health and safety of sport."

The NFL's recent focus on concussions and their long-term effects, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), has put the issue in the national spotlight.

"You have about 1.5 million brain injuries in the United States each year," Molfese said. "A bunch of those could be the same person being reinjured -- once you have a brain injury, the likelihood of experiencing another brain injury is certainly higher -- but that's a significant level. It's something no one around the world has really addressed: how to recover from brain injuries, how to predict recovery better and safeguard recovery better and so on.

"This is a pretty critical health issue. Funding is a high likelihood, provided we make a good case that we can pull it off and do it at a high scientific level."

Concussions in football have generated the most attention and research so far, but there is also concern in sports like soccer, hockey, field hockey and basketball -- and far less data in those sports.

Although the academic resources in the Big Ten and the Ivy League led to the partnership, the number of athletes playing a variety of sports in both conferences contributed as well.

"We don't have enough research," Harris said. "We don't have enough answers that we need to have in terms of how much is enough in hits to the head. What's the short-term impact, what's the long-term damage? We just don't know. Are certain individuals more susceptible to CTE? We think so. But who are those people? We don't know that.

"We're going to figure out some ways to address this, and share data and studies. I don't think we're going to get short-term answers here; I think this is a long-term review. It may take years to develop the answers we're looking for."

ESPN.com's Brian Bennett contributed to this report.