One Purdue professor of mechanical engineering and basic medical sciences has worked on concussion research for over a decade and has reportedly found ways in which athletes can avoid concussions.
A recent article in Knowable magazine about the potential danger of blows to the head and possible solutions referenced Professor Eric Nauman’s work. The article elaborated on prospective medical treatments for concussions, but also offered preventive measures that Nauman has researched, such as decreasing a soccer ball’s air pressure or changing an offensive lineman’s stance in football.
These preventive measures are an athlete’s best option for avoiding head trauma, Nauman concludes.
“We absolutely can engineer the solution to this,” Nauman said. “This is a relatively easy fix. It’ll take a little change to the helmets and a little bit of change to technique, but it’s all stuff that is completely doable.”
Nauman started his work at Purdue in 2007 with Larry Leverenz, a professor emeritus of health and kinesiology and West Lafayette city councilor, and Thomas Talavage, a former Purdue professor of computer and biomedical engineering who now heads the department of biomedical engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
Nauman, Leverenz and Talavage made strides in the Purdue Neurotrauma Group in 2008 by taking preseason MRIs of athletes as a baseline of brain health for each athlete.
“Nobody was even trying to do anything like that at the time,” Nauman said.
At the time, standard procedure for researchers in the concussion field was to wait for a player to be concussed and then compare their MRI scan with a non-concussed player.
Now, Nauman is working with Dartmouth College’s football team to study the forces exerted when players are tackled, a departure from previous studies that have examined the acceleration of players into contact.
Dartmouth’s football team typically runs no-tackle practices, but is making an exception for Nauman’s research and allowing some time for contact. Because of the cancellation of the Ivy League’s season, though, field testing will not take place until fall of 2021.
“I would say the Ivy League in general tends to think about those issues a little bit more, but being able to have the partnership is fantastic,” Nauman said.
New methods and technologies are not always welcomed when it comes to concussion research. Nauman says he’s had several experiences, either with the NFL, Big Ten or Purdue Athletics, where his team’s data has not been viewed favorably.
In one instance, Nauman and Talavage were on a conference call with a top physician in the NFL to discuss their research.
“And the physician says, ‘Well, just so you know, you’ve been noticed by the NFL at the executive level.’ And then he hangs up, but the way he said it was just very ominous,” Nauman said. ”No ‘bye,’ no ‘talk to you soon’, he just hung up. It was quick. It was almost like somebody hung up for him.”
In one proposal to the Big Ten, Nauman and his team offered to build a video system that would allow players to be monitored throughout a football game. Nauman says he felt it also could have been a good opportunity for the Big Ten to make the network more fun by allowing viewers to watch their favorite players more closely.
“We’ve gone to the Big Ten and said, ‘Look we can build this system for you and make it financially a windfall.’ And we didn’t get any feedback, they didn’t want to do it,” Nauman said. “We thought it was a win-win, but we didn’t get much love for that one.”
At Purdue, Nauman says he and Talavage have had conversations with the athletics department and have done work with the women’s soccer team. The researchers have also worked with first-year incoming football players, Purdue Athletics confirmed in an email.
Regardless of whether this minimal engagement is due to lack of time or resources, Nauman says he hopes it changes.
“One of the things that we’ve found, and is probably the most important aspect of our research, is that these problems are all completely avoidable,” Nauman said. “We can help the coaches reduce the number of head impacts, whether it’s football or soccer, and improve the skills of the players.”
Purdue Athletics’ current concussion protocol includes a preseason education and evaluation, which includes the administration of a cognitive test called ImPACT. To recognize and diagnose concussions in athletes, they primarily use a test called SCAT5.
While these measures, which are diagnostic and conducted in the preseason or post-concussion, are not the worst methods, Nauman believes they fall short. According to Nauman, the ImPACT’s false positive rate is 22%.
“That’s high enough that even with a baseline, it was hard to discern what’s going on,” Nauman said.
Nauman said he feels a section of the SCAT5, called SAC, is “dubious” after the removal of monitoring eye movements and changes in pupil diameter by athletic trainers. Prior to the SAC, Nauman says athletic trainers examined eye movements and changes in pupil diameters when looking for evidence of a concussion.
Anne Sereno, a professor of neuroscience, psychology and biomedical engineering, has done eye-tracking research both in the United States and abroad with athletes. She finds that eye-monitoring is an effective measure to track the effect of sub-concussive blows.
“(Eye-tracking) would be more accurate, sensitive, reliable, and I think it’s quicker,” Sereno said.
While an eye-tracking machine is not portable enough to have on the field, Sereno has developed and acquired patents for a tablet-based task that mimics the tasks done with an eye-tracker. It could be used to monitor athletes over time.
Despite the reported lack of enthusiasm from athletic organizations that are aware of Nauman’s work, he said he’s appreciative of strides he has been able to make in research.
“The grad students we have, had then and still have, are amazing, wonderful students who wanted to get good data. And that was all that was driving it,” Nauman said. “You know we didn’t have any politics or anything crazy like that, we were just trying to get good data.
“If anybody ever asks, that’s the thing that I think I’m proudest of.”