LINCOLN — A University of Nebraska at Lincoln brain researcher is at the forefront of a newly announced partnership between the Big Ten and the Ivy League to study head injuries in sports.
Dennis Molfese, a developmental psychologist who heads UNL's Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, says the new partnership offers unprecedented opportunity to study how concussions and other head injuries affect the workings of the brain.
"For the first time," he said, "we'll be collecting large amounts of data from a large number of people — more than had ever been tested before." The collaboration will enable scientists to examine athletes' brains before and after they have suffered a concussion, to learn more about how concussions damage the brain and how the brain recovers from the injury.
"We should know more in a year or two about how to assess concussion and track its progress than we've learned in 100 years," Molfese said.
Sports-related head injuries, particularly in football, have garnered increasing scrutiny in recent years, with studies showing that retired NFL players are more prone to dementia and depression if they had suffered multiple concussions during their careers. The suicide last month of former linebacker Junior Seau fueled speculation that his death, like that of several previous suicides by former NFL players, might have been linked to degenerative brain damage resulting from repeated head injuries. Multiple concussions can result in a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Such findings have led to a congressional hearing, additional rules in the NFL and a class-action lawsuit against the NFL involving more than 1,000 former players. Nebraska is among a number of states in recent years to pass concussion safety laws to protect young athletes.
A typical major college football program experiences about 20 concussions per year among its athletes, Molfese said. With 12 Big Ten and eight Ivy League teams to draw from, scientists would have the ability to analyze about 400 injuries a year and to compare brains after injury with baseline MRIs taken of young athletes when they enter the program.
Big Ten and Ivy League officials officially announced the new partnership Tuesday. The effort has been in the works for more than two years.
An official with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation — the Big Ten's academic arm — called the new partnership "the deepest and most significant research collaboration we've launched."
"It draws perfectly on the intersection of great medicine, greath athletics and great academics that characterizes what is best in our universities," said Barbara McFadden Allen, executive director of the CIC.
University of Iowa President Sally Mason and Princeton Univeristy President Shirley Tilghman, who serve, respectively, as chairwomen of the Big Ten's Council of Presidents/Chancellors and the Ivy League's Council of Presidents, also touted the new partnership.
"It will provide an incredible boost to our ongoing efforts while reinforcing the priorities of institutional research and reciprocity between some of the nation's top academic organizations," Mason said.
"The Ivy League is committed to fostering a safe and healthy environment for our student athletes," Tilghman said. "By pooling our expertise and resources, our institutions aim to significantly expand upon the resarch needed to improve long-term, concussion-prevention measures."
Molfese is an Oklahoma native whom UNL wooed away from the University of Louisville in 2010. New quarters for his laboratory are being built as part of the expansion and renovation of the east side of Memorial Stadium. The lab is scheduled to open in July or August 2013.
Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne agreed that the Athletic Department will contribute $1.5 million toward the cost of outfitting Molfese's laboratory, which will include a sophisticated MRI machine that studies brain activity.
Molfese also serves as coordinator of the Big Ten's research into athletic brain injuries. As such, he helps organize the work of some 44 scientists, team physicians and athletic trainers, tackling issues such as common research standards among participating universities' institutional review boards; establishing a central repository for collecting and maintaining data; and developing standard formats for data.
Although the research will focus on athletes, it has implications far beyond sports, Molfese said. It also could help the person who suffered a brain injury in a car accident, the child who was hurt in a shaken-baby incident and the newborn who was deprived of oxygen during birth.
"We should definitely be able to make (football) much safer, and if injuries do occur, students will have a better prospect of recovery," he said. "But there are 1.5 million new head injuries each year in the U.S. and sports injuries are a relatively small part of that."
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