CINCINNATI — U.S. women's soccer hero Brandi Chastain announced earlier this year that she would donate her brain to study concussions, shining a light on the issue of brain injuries in a sport not always associated with them. Now a local study could be key to reducing concussion risks among youth soccer players.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is doing a comprehensive concussion study involving high school girls’ soccer.
Connecticut-based Q30 Sports Science will provide money to help Cincinnati Children’s Sports Medicine Research team pursue the study, which is set to begin this fall sports season in the Cincinnati area.
The study will be centered on girls’ soccer players and the Q-Collar, a special investigational collar worn around the neck during competition within contact sports.
The collar puts slight pressure on the jugular vein to increase intracranial blood volume in order to decrease what is often referred to as “brain slosh.”
Wearing the collar is safe and merely imitates the action of yawning, according to Dr. David Smith, a visiting research scientist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
The theory is the device mimics how a woodpecker protects itself from repetitive and significant head impacts.
There is plenty of reason for optimism.
“If this is right, this will be the single most changer in sport in my mind – in both rules and regulations,” said Dr. Gregory Myer, who is the director of research for the Division of Sports Medicine and the director of the Human Performance Lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Women's Soccer Sees Rise
A surge of interest in concussions and the link to women’s soccer was brought to new heights with the news in March that Chastain will donate her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation for research and awareness of concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
“Having played soccer since I was little, I can’t even attempt a guess at how many times I’ve headed the ball,” Chastain said in a statement on the Concussion Legacy Foundation site. “It’s a significant number. It’s scary to think about all the heading and potential concussions that were never diagnosed in my life, but it’s better to know.”
High school girls’ soccer is an intriguing sport for researchers since the Q-Collar study was previously used in males who played ice hockey and football at St. Xavier High School and football at Moeller High School.
“The next steps for Children’s – I know they really want to get involved in the female non-helmeted sports,” St. Xavier Head Athletic Trainer Michael Gordon said.
“So they are really looking toward women’s soccer as their next frontier," Gordon said. "There is a lot more to study within the chemistry of a female in how it is different than the chemistry of a male. The ways that the brain moves around inside a skull are a little bit different. The excitement is there is still more research to do. But, it’s certainly an exciting frontier.”
Dr. Myer said his lab is using all of its resources to focus on girls’ soccer this fall, and the study shows excellent potential.
“The accelerometer we are using is actually a new prototype, too, so we are getting it as they are coming off the production line,” he said.
Data from the Ohio High School Athletic Association suggests girls’ soccer as having one of the highest number of concussions reported among sports in the state. The OHSAA only collects data from game officials’ reports (the times when an official is involved in removing a student-athlete from a game due to a suspected concussion). So that is an unofficial count of concussions statewide.
Girls’ soccer was the No. 1 reported concussed sport this school year between fall and winter sports seasons. Girls’ soccer accounted for 128 concussions compared to 114 for football, according to OHSAA records.
In 2014-15, there were 53 reported concussions in girls’ soccer and 101 in football. In 2013-14, there were 84 reported concussions in girls’ soccer and 199 in football.
More Research Needed
University of Cincinnati neurology professor Dr. Joseph Clark has worked on several projects with Dr. Myer and agreed more research is needed with the Q-Collar.
“There’s an old saying in boxing and MMA — it’s the hit you don’t see that knocks you out,” Dr. Clark said. “And that can be interpreted by when you get a chance to get ready for it you are better off. But, how does the body get ready for it?"
He said the logic behind the Q-Collar is that it backs up some of the blood flow into the brain and repackages the orientation of the brain. He said that could act like somebody bearing down getting ready for a hit more or less all the time.
"And that’s what the research needs to come in," Dr. Clark said. "We don’t know if the body adjusts after five minutes, 10 minutes or five hours of the collar and it is no longer beneficial. Those are all open questions.”
Dr. Myer has received requests from all over the country about the Q-Collar, but says it’s still an investigational device.
He admits to being skeptical about everything in science, but there is cautionary hope things are moving in the right direction with the Q-Collar.
“To me this is a potential paradigm-shifter in the area of study and in prevention of concussion research,” Dr. Myer said. “That to me is exciting both from a professional level and a personal level. I am very enthusiastic about keeping kids in sports and helping them play safe.”
Dr. Myer said Q30 is taking its time with testing and will not rush it to market. The hope is to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Smith said in late April there were nearly 25 studies (90 percent with Dr. Myer) that the team has compiled.
Could Affect Everyday Life
Q30 brought in many design engineers in 2012 and 2013 to make a compression device acceptable and safe for human use, Dr. Smith said.
Woodpeckers impact trees at 1,200 times g-force and do so 12,000 times a day on average, Dr. Smith explained. Head-ramming sheep impact at 500 times g-force and diving birds impact at 1,000 times g-force, he said.
“Yet you and I can get brain damage with one impact of 50 times g-force? We are facilitating a protective mechanism that has been in the necks of highly g-tolerant organisms (and all vertebrates) for millennia,” Dr. Smith said. “I didn’t really invent anything rather just connected the dots.”
Dr. Myer said the Q-Collar could potentially change how car seats look, how a seat belt operates and offer benefits for the military and for individuals who have hearing issues.
“If this theory is correct down the line I think there are a lot of implications beyond sport,” Dr. Myer said.
Visit www.wcpo.com/concussion for more exclusive local content about concussions.