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Experts Brainstorm on Concussions

Collaborative Workshop Looks for Answers Amid Research Gaps

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Workshop moderator Patrick Drane, left, listens to panelist James Cantu discuss the state of concussion research.

By Ed Brennen

With concussion awareness at an all-time high, brain injury expert James Cantu figures he attends conferences around the country “almost weekly” to lend his voice to the discussion.

But when Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University and a senior adviser to the NFL, served as a panelist at the Concussion Prevention and Diagnosis Workshop June 2-3 at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center, he was struck by Day 2 of the agenda: small group, multidisciplinary brainstorming sessions.

“Almost all the conferences that I’ve been a part of week after week involve didactic lectures, presentations and people taking notes,” Cantu said. “Almost never is there a second day of a workshop where problems are identified by people in the audience, as well as the participants, and solutions sought. That sets this conference apart.”

Indeed, that collaborative exchange between nearly 50 panelists and participants from a wide range of concussion-related fields — including helmet manufacturing and testing, neuroscience, biomechanics, nutritional biochemistry, sports medicine, public policy and Veterans Affairs — was the primary goal of the workshop, co-sponsored by UMass Lowell and the UMass Medical School.

“There’s research being done in many different areas, and we wanted to bring all the players together to leverage the advances being made,” said workshop moderator Patrick Drane, assistant director of the Baseball Research Center. “This is really going to require a team-based approach that has all the different disciplines included.”

The workshop examined what’s presently known about the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of concussions, not just in athletes at the professional, collegiate and youth levels, but also in military personnel on the battlefield. By identifying current gaps in concussion research, Drane said the workshop aimed to determine future research paths and funding opportunities that can provide both immediate and long-term solutions.

‘Times are different’

Head Athletic Trainer and panelist Artie Poitras, who has been treating River Hawk athletes for the past 33 years, said the workshop was a valuable opportunity to “ask a lot of questions of the people you’ve always wanted to ask.” He was particularly intrigued by the work of Dr. Bethany Rowson, a researcher at the Center for Injury Biomechanics at Virginia Tech, who developed a system to evaluate the safety of hockey helmets.

“To bring all these people together in one place is great,” said Poitras, who added that the difference in today’s concussion protocol is “night and day” from when he began his career. "When I first started, you could have symptoms but as long as it disappeared in 15 minutes, you could go back in the game. Now the times are different.”

Fellow panelist Nichole Rondeau, who is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Francis College of Engineering, provided the dual perspectives of both player and coach. A former member of the River Hawks volleyball team, Rondeau still competes at the national level while coaching at Notre Dame Academy. While many people associate concussions with sports like football and hockey, Rondeau said volleyball players are just as susceptible.

“At the college level, we’ve registered spikes at 50 to 60 mph. If you’re not ready for it and don’t put your hands up, you can take the ball right in the face. It’s called getting six-packed,” said Rondeau, who recently witnessed a teammate in a co-ed league get knocked out during a game.

“I think the information is out there, but the hardest part is getting people to respect the concussion,” Rondeau said. “If they don’t see the immediate effects, it’s not a broken femur or they didn’t get knocked out, they think they’re fine. They’re not seeing that later on there might be some severe neurological effects.”

Proper protocol needed

Dr. John Broderick, president of Greater Lowell Chiropractic and Rehabilitation Inc., started a pilot program this spring with the UMass Lowell men’s and women’s lacrosse teams to provide comprehensive baseline and post-concussion data that could help determine when it was safe to return to action.

“If there’s not a proper protocol in place, then the trainers are in a very tough position of pulling a kid out,” said Broderick, a certified chiropractor on the PGA Tour who earned his English degree from UMass Lowell in 1993. “Hopefully I can glean a different perspective from this workshop that will have me re-evaluate what I’m doing that can make it safer for athletes.”

The workshop comes on the heels of a $35,000 planning grant that James Sherwood, director of the Baseball Research Center, and Assoc. Prof. Constance Moore of Psychiatry and Radiology at the UMass Medical Center, received from the UMass President's Science and Technology Initiative Fund for a multi-disciplinary initiative to study concussions.

Moore, an internationally recognized physicist and neuroscientist, served as a panelist along with UMass Medical School colleague Herbert Stevenson, director of sports medicine.

“The awareness has never been higher, but it’s still a moving target,” said Stevenson, who estimates he sees six concussed patients per day, most between the ages of 5 and 25. “It impacts all areas of life, so it’s significant. But the more groups we can develop that are multidisciplinary, I think the more headway we’ll make on prevention.”

Drane, who credited Vice Provost for Research Julie Chen for making the workshop a reality, said that the fear of concussions is already causing parents to prevent their children playing sports, which could lead to other health issues down the road.

“It could be affecting participation in a lot of sports that are generally good for youth,” Drane said. “We want to address the situation in such a way that you still want to participate in sports.”