PAU Neuropsychologist Studies Effects of Sports-Related Concussions; Offers Free Baseline Testing for Teens

Monday, March 2, 2020
Rayna Hirst
Every year, an estimated 3.8 million athletes suffer a concussion, and 70 percent of related ER visits are by children and teenagers. Rayna Hirst, Ph.D., associate professor of neuropsychology, isn’t surprised by these statistics. In her Behavioral Research and Assessment in Neuropsychology (BRAIN) lab, where she is studying the effects of sports-related concussions, she says more than a third of the test subjects have had a mild traumatic brain injury. 
What she did find astonishing is that parents of half of those kids did not seek medical attention, just the sort of behavior that Brain Injury Awareness Month, observed this month, aims to change.  
While Hirst’s study is in its early stages, with several papers published so far, Hirst and her team have uncovered some unexpected findings. Football gets most of the attention, but many youth athletes sustained concussions while involved in high-impact activities outside of organized sports, such as sailing, dirt biking and recreational basketball. And when it comes to organized sports, athletes in positions where they are repeatedly tackled are at greater risk, while body mass index, age and the number of years of exposure were unrelated. 
To recruit subjects for the study, Hirst offers free neuropsychological evaluation for athletes ages 8-16. Her students review each child’s medical history, interview the participant and a family member or caregiver, and administer a battery of tests that assess the youth’s memory, concentration, problem-solving skills and other cognitive functions. Parents get a detailed report of their child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Athletes can be retested after a concussion, with the results compared to the baseline to help determine treatment and decisions about when a student can resume regular activity and return to the sport. Hirst also recommends retesting every year or two, also free, “because kids develop cognitively at different rates.”
In fact, she says, a healthy child may have abnormal scores on cognitive testing even on the baseline assessment so she cautions parents not to read too much into one or two low scores. It’s also important to know those low baseline scores so they can be interpreted correctly in the event of an injury.
Hirst emphasizes the community service aspect of the concussion study. At the high school level, she says, many sports programs do basic baseline screening of athletes at the beginning of each season, but middle schools and schools in lower socioeconomic regions don’t have the funds. That’s where Hirst and her team can step in. By offering free testing, they are giving parents and school or league administrators access to a service they wouldn’t otherwise have.
In addition to the screenings, the study offers information and resources for parents and coaches through its website and social media.
So far, the study’s database comprises about 130 youth, with longitudinal data on 30 of them, and Hirst would like to grow that number. Assessments are normally done in the lab, but “we can be mobile,” Hirst says. “We could test entire teams at a school.”
Created by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017