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Findings related to concussions, head trauma, mental health and injury prevention highlight progress of research projects funded by Pac-12

Oct 23, 2019
Pac-12 Conference
SAN FRANCISCO – As part of its Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative, the Pac-12 today announced general findings and progress from several of its currently-funded research projects. Subjects covered by the research projects include concussions and head trauma, mental health and injury prevention and general health education. Projects in today’s announcement are part of the initiative’s grant program which annually funds millions of dollars for research taking place on Pac-12 campuses. Also included with today's announcement, a separate study from the University of Colorado Boulder was recently published, finding no link between youth contact sports and cognitive, mental health problems.

“Now in our fifth year of this initiative, we are proud to continue to see progress through the research and work taking place at our institutions,” said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. “These projects support our efforts to enhance the health and well-being of our student-athletes.”

Findings in today's announcement, available below, are highlighted by the Pac-12’s work with the NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense on concussion research, Oregon State's focus on mental health with the "#DamWorthIt" campaign and a number of separate studies in the realms of head trauma, injury prevention and general health education. 
In addition to findings from Pac-12-funded research projects, a University of Colorado Boulder study recently announced its findings related to adolescents who play contact sports, including football, and the likelihood of experiencing cognitive impairment, depression or suicidal thoughts in early adulthood as compared to their peers. The study looked at nearly 11,000 youth followed for a period of 14 years. Published this month in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, more information on the study is available here
Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health Conference & Student-Athlete Mental Health Summit
In May 2019, doctors, athletics trainers and other university personnel working with the Pac-12 and within collegiate sports met at the annual Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health Conference and updated each other on several research projects taking place on their campuses and being funded by the Conference’s initiative. In addition, this coming January, the Pac-12, NCAA and David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA will host a mental health summit at the Luskin Center at UCLA. The summit will provide a unique opportunity for a multidisciplinary exchange of ideas with leaders in both research and clinical care of competitive athletes as it pertains to mental health. Set to take place Jan. 16-17, 2020, more information on the summit, including registration information, is available here
Below are updates on several research projects (with lead university noted) currently funded by the initiative’s grant program.
Concussions & Head Trauma
Strengthening Concussion Education by Engaging Medical Staff: Continued Program Development and Evaluation (Washington)
  • NCAA guidelines state that institutions should provide coaches with education about a variety of topics related to student-athlete health and safety, including concussions. This project developed a cutting-edge online concussion education program for Pac-12 coaches called “GoHuddle.” Development was heavily informed by interviews with Pac-12 coaches and medical staff. 
  • The primary goal of “GoHuddle” is to help coaches create team cultures that are supportive of concussion reporting. 
  • Pilot data from two Pac-12 institutions found preliminary evidence of effectiveness, with coaches showing a statistically-significant increase in their intention to talk to their team about concussion safety following completion of the platform.
  • During the 2019-2020 academic year the “GoHuddle” platform will be rolled out to all interested Pac-12 institutions, in conjunction with a larger evaluation study.
Pac-12 and NCAA Collaboration – Concussion Assessment, Research and Education (CARE) Consortium Data Collection: Establishing a Research Infrastructure and Framework (Pac-12 Brain Trauma Task Force)
  • The Concussion Assessment Research and Education (CARE) Consortium was formed out of a partnership between the NCAA and US Department of Defense (DoD) which is structured to provide an innovative framework to study the natural history of concussion and establish best practices for recovery. In 2017, in collaboration with the NCAA and DoD, the Pac-12 launched the Pac-12 CARE-Affiliated Project (CAP), serving as a regional hub of CARE Consortium.
  • By the fall of 2020, all Pac-12 institutions will have joined the Pac-12 CAP.
  • To date, over 2,000 student-athletes have consented to participate in the Pac-12 CAP, each with valuable baseline measurements and assessments collected from male and female athletes participating in a variety of NCAA Division I sports including football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, lacrosse, water polo and skiing. 
  • The Pac-12 CAP has captured valuable incident concussion and recovery information from over 100 male and female student-athletes, laying the foundation for a rich resource that will contribute to our understanding of concussion incidence and recovery as well as establishing a knowledge base to guide clinical assessment and treatment paradigms.
Changing the Culture of Concussion Reporting among College Athletes (Arizona State)
  • While not funded by the Pac-12, this project, funded under the NCAA Mind Matters Research Challenge, used a socio-ecological approach to study athlete reporting of severe head impacts (SHIs), which can lead to concussions.
  • The project studied individual-level vested interests, team-level culture and social-level narratives, with the research indicating that athletes perceive concussions to be a low-immediacy problem, with possible negative effects lying far into the future, leading athletes to under report SHIs.
  • Based on the findings the team on the project created a persuasive video that acknowledges athletes’ desires to play and perform, but reframes SHIs as a short-term threat to their fitness to play. Athletes who watched the video had a higher narrative transportation, were more likely to see SHIs as an immediate problem and were more likely to see concussions as a long-term risk.
  • The team concluded that education focusing on SHIs as an immediate threat to athletic performance is the best way to increase reporting.
Head Trauma: Roles of Nutritive Support and Supplementation (California)
  • This on-going study continues efforts to discover roles of nutritive support and dietary supplementations to support recovery from moderately severe head injuries via lab rodent testing.
  • Previous such clinical studies, which this research is based on, have shown that human patients with major brain injuries are severely undernourished.
  • Once all data collecting is complete, currently in full swing, the team will analyze hundreds of behavioral, dietary, biochemical cell and molecular records to establish the extent to which nutritive support and dietary supplementation can improve recovery from brain injury.
From Head Impacts to Brain Injury, Determining the Mechanism Underlying Concussions in Pac-12 Football (Stanford)
  • The aim of this project is to better understand the effects of concussive and sub-concussive head impacts over time in high-contact sports such as football and lacrosse. 
  • The ongoing work of this project has examined alterations in the corpus callosum as well as regional brain volumes over time specific to high-impact sports. This method will allow for studying the long-term effects of repeated head impacts on the neurological and neuropsychological well-being of collegiate athletes.
Brain Health in Male and Female Basketball Athletes at the University of Utah (Utah)
  • The overall aim of this project is to evaluate the association between imaging-based brain measures, neurocognition and behavioral states as they predict current and future wellness in college athletes.
  • Discoveries thus far, if replicated, could serve to complement best practices in the assessment and treatment of head injuries, particularly at the sub-concussive level, given the incentive student-athletes may feel to minimize or underreport this type of injury. The research also advances knowledge regarding brain changes between pre and postseason.
Mental Health
#DamWorthIt Campaign (Oregon State)
  • Started by two student-athletes at Oregon State, Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten, this campaign looked to spread awareness about the epidemic surrounding mental health in collegiate athletics through a peer-to-peer education model designed by student-athletes for student-athletes.
  • Initial results from the project’s data collection showed that 46% of student-athletes reported that there is a stigma surrounding mental health on their campus and 51% stated that there is a stigma associated with seeing a psychologist.
  • Over 50% of student-athletes also reported that their stress and anxiety levels were greater than a seven out of 10. Just over 21% of student-athletes reported that they have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder in their lifetime and over 34% reported that there is a history of mental health disorders in their family.
  • In a sample of 522, 104 student-athletes reported that they have seriously considered suicide, equating to a one in five, or 20%, statistic.
  • Over 90% of student-athletes feel that their school does an excellent job at providing mental health resources on their campus, however over 93% of student-athletes reported that they would be interested in receiving more mental health resources on their campus.
Injury Prevention and General Health Promotion and Education
Injury Surveillance: Scaling Up Student-Athlete Exposure Tracking Using PacTrac (Oregon State)
  • The Pac-12’s Health Analytics Program (HAP) has the potential to be unmatched in its power to improve student-athlete well-being.
  • PacTrac, a web-based exposure reporting application developed with previous funding support from the Pac-12, was redesigned to provide schools with their own secure school management account that contributes to a conference-level database in which exposures are aggregated across schools.
  • The completion of this project, now in its final year, will provide the Pac-12 with a robust, yet flexible, exposure-reporting system that can be used to create not only conference-wide advances in student-athlete health and wellness but also support the individual and collaborative initiatives of its universities as well.
Thermal Management for Athletes: Problems and Opportunities (Stanford)
  • Excessive rises in body temperature (hyperthermia) due to exertion, especially in warm environments, impair performance and in extreme cases even kill. This project has shown rapid recovery from hyperthermia and enhancements in physical conditioning and performance through episodic palmar cooling in both male and female athletes.
  • Extending these observations to emergency situations, the project demonstrated that standard treatment for recovery from hyperthermia using cold packs in the axillae, groin and neck can be improved by placing the same cold packs on the palms, soles and face.
  • The project has now engaged a partner investment and management group to set up a new company to make palmar technology available to consumers with a hope for general use across the Pac-12.
Cardiovascular Screening in the Pac-12 (Washington)
  • With sudden cardiac death being the leading medical cause of death in athletes, this study looked at over 8,600 athletes, some of whom were screened with history and physical alone (compared to ECG) and some who also had an ECG to determine the prevalence of conditions found that cardiac conditions associated with sudden cardiac death.
  • These conditions were six times more likely to be discovered via ECG testing compared to other methods.
  • While NCAA requires each athlete to have a pre-participation physical, including a cardiovascular screening, the best way to screen is debated.
  • This work seeks to inform healthcare providers when making choices about how to screen athletes for cardiovascular conditions and hopes that the cardiovascular questions asked during screening can be improved based on further analysis from this study.
Additional Research Projects
Developing a Comprehensive, Quantitative Understanding of Hip Morphometrics and Biomechanics in Collegiate Athletes at Risk for Developing Femoroacetabular Impingement Syndrome (Utah)
  • Specific to hip injuries, on-going research with this project will look to aid in the development of screening tools for at-risk athletes and better provide an approach for tailoring training routines in higher-risk individuals.
A Prospective Study to Improve Bone Health and Reduce Incidence of Bone Stress Injuries in Pac-12 Female Distance Runners (Stanford and UCLA)
  • Specific to female distance runners, this project is looking at ways to improve bone health and reduce incidence of bone stress injuries.
  • This project is utilizing a specifically-designed app to provide student-athletes with nutrition suggestions as well as education through meetings with sports dietitians and team physicians focusing on increasing energy availability and optimizing bone building nutrients.
Health & Wellness: Assessing Student-Athlete Health and Performance (Colorado)
  • This project focuses on identifying, disseminating and implementing important best practices for sustainable student-athlete training and performance.
  • By pooling a team of professionals across multiple disciplines (sports medicine, neuroscience, epidemiology, sleep physiology & exercise physiology) the work has produced 14 abstracts accepted for presentation at national scientific meetings and two manuscript submissions to peer reviewed scientific journals.
  • Current results highlight the project’s progress in how training, competition, travel and academics affect mood, sleep, blood volume and biomarkers in varsity student athletes.
Integration of Biomechanics-Based Informatics for Prevention of Stress Fractures (Oregon)
  • Over the past year, this project initialized an inter-institutional database for biomechanics-based informatics. Several discoveries made have been accepted for presentation at the International Society of Biomechanics conference, including models for accurately predicting peak vertical ground reaction force (vGRF), vertical impulse and contact time from GPS measured running speed.
  • Other observations and discoveries included changes to swing and stance leg velocities during initial contact were significantly correlated with stance leg reaction force impulse experienced by female runners immediately after foot contact.
  • Also, sex differences during long training runs indicated that males and females adjust peak lower limb acceleration differently for varying surfaces (road vs. woodchip trail).
  • Females tend to decrease accelerations on woodchip trail.
  • Males appear to maintain similar accelerations on both surfaces.
The STEALTH Project Pilot Study: Student-Athlete Health Assessment Using PROMIS Tools (Colorado)
  • Looking at athletes from across 11 sports at a single Division I program prior to starting their season, after completing their season and within a week of sustaining an injury.
  • When compared to the general age-matched population, findings revealed that athlete participation alone affects athlete’s overall function and condition while injuries greatly affect athletes not only physically, but also mentally and socially. Additional research with this study will look at the impact specific sports and specific injuries can have on athletes.
More information on the Pac-12’s Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative can be found at
About the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative
The Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative was created in 2013 and provides funding for research projects at Pac-12 universities. The initiative is a collective effort between the Conference and its universities to strengthen and improve the health, general well-being and safety of all student-athletes. Since its founding, the initiative has committed funding for 25 research projects at Pac-12 universities with a total investment of over $12 million.