Every year, nearly 2.5 million U.S. high school athletes participate in contact sports. Each of these athletes sustains an average of 650 subconcussive head impacts in a single season, hits that can negatively affect brain health.
A $2.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help researchers at Indiana University determine whether, and to what extent, repetitive subconcussive head impacts — impacts that do not trigger clinically detectable signs and symptoms of concussion — negatively affect brain health in adolescents. If applied repeatedly, subconcussive impacts can trigger subclinical cellular and molecular disruptions in brain cells. Ultimately, the IU research will help establish safety guidelines for young athletes exposed to head impacts.
"This large-scale study uses state-of-art neurologic assessments to monitor brain health of high school football players," said study lead Kei Kawata, assistant professor of kinesiology at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. "This will be a monumental study to understand safe or unsafe levels of head impacts exposure in high school football, so we can provide a safe platform for players to enjoy football."
The project is an extension of a study Kawata piloted in 2019 focusing on subconcussive hits among football athletes at Bloomington North High School in Indiana. The current project will span four years and include athletes from Bloomington High School North, Bloomington High School South, Edgewood High School and Mooresville High School.
Adolescence is an especially vulnerable time for neurodevelopment. While head injuries in athletes continue to be a focus of researchers throughout the world, Kawata's research is unique in that it focuses on repetitive subconcussive head injury that does not necessarily trigger immediate symptoms such as headache, dizziness and disorientation.
Using computerized mouthguards, neurological imaging and blood samples, Kawata and his team will measure every impact athletes endure during play, assessing players' potential eyeball and eyelid movement impairment, information processing, and blood biomarkers.
Kawata said that playing sports provides young people with important skills and lifelong memories. He said the goal of his work is to make sure young athletes are enjoying sports in the safest way possible.
That goal is important to athletic leaders such as Andrew Hodson, who said that working with researchers at IU has helped inform his school's athletic programs and keep students safe.
"At the (Monroe County Community School Corp.), we place student-athletes' health and safety as our highest priority," said Hodson, athletic director at Bloomington High School North. "We are thankful for the long-standing relationship we have with Dr. Kawata and IU, and for this critical study that addresses an important safety concern for our athletes and their parents.
"Athletics provides meaningful opportunities for students to engage in physical activity and be part of a team, and we want this to continue in the safest way possible. We look forward to continuing to be a part of this important project."
Others contributing to the study include Jesse Steinfeldt, IU School of Education Bloomington; Sharlene Newman and Hu Cheng, IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences; Jeffrey Bazarian, University of Rochester; and Keisuke Ejima, Zhongxue Chen and Jon Macy, all from the School of Public Health-Bloomington.