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Concussion research: Getting ahead of the problem

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In recent years, the spotlight has turned to return-to-play issues for athletes following a concussion.

Because of this, many states now have guidelines specifying recovery time or defensive techniques to avoid injury in the future. And new game rules on the high school and college levels also help lower the risk to players on the field.

But what about a student—not a student athlete—who receives a concussion?

Researchers Julianne Schmidt and Robert Lynall in the Department of Kinesiology and Katy O'Brien in the Department of Communication Sciences and Special Education realized that although there is a large amount of information and resources available to student athletes, it was the general student population that was getting left out. That's why faculty members and their labs in the College of Education are taking an innovative approach to treating concussions, looking at ways to support students as they return to their daily schedules following a head injury.

"As far as students on campus, we have athletes who receive concussions—but it turns out that there is a significant portion of the student body who also experience concussions," says O'Brien, an assistant professor. "We expect them to get better, but there's a timeline to that. And so one of the things Rob, Julianne, and I are working on is to find out how students are doing on that timeline."

On average, she says, it can take someone between 10 days and two weeks to recover from a concussion—a significant amount of time depending on where it falls in a semester. And while student athletes often have resources lined up before returning to the playing field, other students don't always have that in place. "For us, it's kind of a challenge—how do we help them integrate back into their everyday life and into class?" adds Lynall.

In addition to working with the general student population, Schmidt and Lynall, both assistant professors, are involved in several projects to raise awareness about concussions, explore concussions at different age levels, and examine how concussions affect everyday tasks such as driving or sleeping. For example, the "Mind Matters" project funded by the National Collegiate Athletic Association aims to improve concussion reporting among student athletes. Schmidt and Welch Suggs, an associate professor in the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, developed a first-person video that will be shown to athletes this fall, with a follow-up next year to determine concussion reporting rates. Another study in the works will look at the quality of sleep received after a concussion and how it influences recovery. Also, Lynall will soon begin research on concussion perceptions and reality among youth football players, and an ongoing project is measuring the effect a concussion has on a person's ability to operate a vehicle.

Between the research done by Schmidt and Lynall at the UGA Concussion Research Laboratory and O'Brien's research through the Cognitive-Communication Rehabilitation Lab, the College covers concussions from prevention to recovery. Renovations in the nearby biomechanics lab will allow researchers to use virtual reality and motion capture to explore how concussions can affect movement.

O'Brien, Schmidt, and Lynall agree that their research, while spread across different buildings, has one thing in common: It changes lives for the better.

"We try to keep our research as clinical as possible," says Lynall. "We don't wear white coats. We don't use pipettes. Our goal is to design studies and collect data that can make an immediate impact on the way people manage concussions."

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