By Jennifer Allford
Every year, Canadians suffer 300,000 concussions while playing competitive sports or taking part in some form of recreational activity.
Keith Yeates leads the Traumatic Brain Injury NeuroTeam, which brings together researchers from the faculties of kinesiology and arts, the Cumming School of Medicine, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
And while researchers are discovering that factors ranging from genetics to social supports can play a role in how someone recovers from a concussion, there’s a lot we still don’t know. The Traumatic Brain Injury NeuroTeam, part of the new Brain and Mental Health Research Strategy, is bringing together a diverse group of researchers to find the answers.
Some people who have a concussion suffer from ongoing headaches afterward, while others have problems with balance and dizziness. Still other people who have a concussion experience troubles sleeping and suffer from depression.
“We tend to talk about concussion as if it’s the same thing for everyone when it isn’t,” says Keith Yeates, PhD, a pediatric neuropsychologist in the Faculty of Arts. “Although we are getting better at diagnosing concussion and predicting which kids are going to have difficulties, there’s a lot of unexplained variability in outcomes. We still have more to learn about the brain’s response to concussion.”
The Traumatic Brain Injury NeuroTeam aims to achieve this goal. Yeates, who’s known for his work on traumatic brain injury in children and youth, is the Traumatic Brain Injury NeuroTeam leader. The team is part of the Neural Injury and Repair Research Theme, which aims to produce a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms of neural injury, develop approaches that will speed recovery from those injuries and help rehabilitate people who have had a neural injury.
Concussion is a complex insult to the brain
The Traumatic Brain Injury NeuroTeam brings together researchers from the faculties of kinesiology and arts, the Cumming School of Medicine, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute to address sports-related concussion and other forms of mild traumatic brain injury.
“Concussion and brain injury are a complex multi-dimensional type of insult to the brain but it’s much more than just an insult to the brain,” says Yeates. “It involves psychological and social dimensions as well. We have to understand the multiple levels and that requires interdisciplinary research.”
The researchers will study how factors such as genetics, inflammation, stress, psychological hardiness, and social supports combine to affect the recovery of someone who has had a concussion, and apply that knowledge to developing effective interventions. “We already have several scientists here doing really important work in terms of treatment of concussion,” says Yeates.
A ‘woeful’ lack of evidence for treating concussion
The interdisciplinary research will address important questions about how to diagnose concussion, how to predict who is going to have persistent problems after a concussion, and how to treat the injury immediately after it occurs and beyond. “We really have a particularly woeful lack of evidence in terms of treatment,” says Yeates. “There are virtually no empirically-based approaches to treating the sorts of difficulties that children and adults have after concussion.”
Eventually, the hope is the research will lead to better, personalized approaches for treating concussions that are based on a person’s underlying neurobiology and their particular genetic and symptom profile. “We are never going to stop all concussions from happening,” says Yeates. “So we need to figure out what we do when they do occur to minimize the potential negative outcomes.”