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The Test and the Tackle: A New Way to Measure Head Injury in Youth Football

October 19, 2023 | By Sarah Grace Engel, M.T.S.

Originally published by Bass Connections

Have you ever cringed watching two football players collide on the field? If you can feel the pain from your living room, imagine being a parent watching from the stands as your child’s helmet slams into the turf.

Studies have suggested that repeated concussions may cause lasting damage to the brain. Yet, scientists don’t have a reliable measure for assessing the cumulative effect of many lower-level impacts over time. Because the symptoms are so variable, even concussions can be hard to identify. 

Jason Luck, an assistant research professor in biomedical engineering, explains the team’s innovative technology for recording head impact.
Jason Luck, an assistant research professor in biomedical engineering, explains the team’s innovative technology for recording head impact.

Many of the assessments used in current concussion protocols, such as symptom reporting, are subjective. Athletes may take neurocognitive tests, which measure factors like memory and reaction time. The problem is, athletes can deliberately underperform on their baseline tests, masking any decline in function after an injury. Doctors and athletic trainers could benefit from more objective ways to tell whether or how badly a kid’s brain is hurt.

Bringing together students and experts in biomedical engineering, psychiatry, neuroscience, and head and neck surgery, a long-running Bass Connections project team aims to help. Since 2015, this team has been collaborating with Triangle-area youth football programs to develop a new way of assessing brain injury: measuring the motion of players’ eyes and their ability to track visual stimuli.

Team leader Jason Luck is no stranger to the game — he’s been involved in football in one way or another since he was 14 years old. Not only did Luck play football in high school, he coached for over a decade, giving him a unique ability to relate to the project team’s community partners. 

The team has developed and refined a specialized earpiece sensor (DASHR), which can be placed in players’ ears to measure head impacts on the field. To supplement data from the DASHR, the team also administers a weekly survey that allows the athletes to comment on various details of their athletic participation. Project team members then take the data and compare it to the results of the eye tracking tests they’ve administered throughout the season.

The team has engaged with multiple community partners, enabling them to gather data from players as young as five, all the way up to high school seniors. This unique aspect of the research provides the possibility to compare a youth athlete’s eye tracking test results across their entire football career.

Carson Herman picture
Carson Herman

With better testing comes better treatment, as well as better-informed athletic department policies. Longtime team member Carson Herman explained, “This fairly new area of research can shed light on the importance of appropriate medical assessments and return-to-play protocols, ensuring that young athletes receive the necessary care and recovery time after a concussion.”

Young athletes aren’t the only ones benefiting from this work — team members are too. Herman, who started on the team as an undergraduate premed student, is continuing this year as a master’s student in biomedical engineering. Her experience on the team transformed her academic and career trajectory.

Luck views Herman’s growth with a sense of pride, as it exemplifies the experience he hopes to generate for his mentees: an environment where teamwork and shared goals can create space for individual empowerment and self-realization. “I like to tell students that in high school, they were on rails, simply being told what they needed to do,” he said. “Duke is about getting off those rails and building your own roller coaster.”

“Bass Connections was essential in the path I took toward finding my true passions.” —Carson Herman

Beau Blass picture
Beau Blass

Of course, not everyone’s roller coaster carries them away from clinical pursuits. Beau Blass, who participated in the team as an undergraduate, is now in his third year as a medical student at Duke. For Blass, the hands-on nature of the Bass Connections experience served as preparation for clinical work.

“I have absolutely relied on skills that I learned on the team during medical school — particularly in pediatrics,” he said. “Those summers spent guiding kids of all ages through our Bass Connections research protocol is not dissimilar to my current experience in clinic.” 

Herman and Blass agreed that engagement with the community and among Duke students of different levels and majors is crucial to the success of the team. The proof is in the participants: three alumni, including Blass, returned to share their experiences with team members. Meanwhile, Herman is excited to take on a mentorship role this year.

Student shows DASHR earpiece to attendees at showcase.
Megan Christy ’23 (third from right) explains the DASHR earpiece at the 2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Fair.

Luck believes that these links and peer mentorship between students facilitate personal and academic growth. “It’s important to create those environments in which your students can really build relationships,” he said. “And they can see through those collaborations and relationships how things they learned in lectures, in labs and in this project are very much connected.”

As the study continues this year, Luck has no plans to slow down. Ultimately, he hopes the team’s work will help make it safer for kids to participate in football — the sport he credits with helping make him who he is today.