You only have one brain: U of R tackles concussion research

Researchers at the University of Regina are testing hundreds of young athletes prior to the start of the sports season, gathering baseline data on brain functions as part of a long-term study on concussions.

University and high school athletes get baseline testing prior to sports season

This high school athlete is one of several football players taking part in ongoing research into sports concussions at the University of Regina. (Dean Gutheil/CBC)
Kinesiology professor Patrick Neary at the University of Regina is conducting long term studies of concussions in sports. (Dean Gutheil/CBC)
Researchers at the University of Regina are testing hundreds of young athletes prior to the start of the sports season, gathering baseline data on brain functions as part of a long-term study on concussions.

Patrick Neary, an exercise physiologist and professor of kinesiology at the U of R, has been examining brain injuries and sports for 10 years.

Concussions can really mess people up.- Kyler Flahr

This year, with support from research grants, Neary is collecting information on some 300 U of R athletes in all sports as well as a group of high school football players from Campbell Collegiate — members of the Tartans.

"The idea is to get information on how the brain is functioning prior to their starting a football season," Neary said Saturday.

In the lab, athletes like Yianni Maragos, 17, were connected to sensitive devices that tracked a variety of functions including oxygen use, heart activity and how the brain reacts to an exercise — a squat-stand.

Yianni Maragos, 17, is one of several hundred university and high school athletes being tested at the University of Regina for research into sports concussions. (Dean Gutheil/CBC)
"Everyone's at risk for a concussion," Maragos, who plays running back for the Tartans, said. He said players are learning how to perform tackles and hits in ways that reduce the risk of a brain injury.

At the end of the season Maragos will return to the lab for more testing to see if there are any changes. As well, if it should happen during the year that he shows signs of a possible concussion, he will be assessed during his recovery.

"Our coaching staff does a great job with that," he said, talking about how players are monitored for any injuries. "They will take us off."

Masking symptoms is a problem

One of the challenges of keeping players safe is ensuring they don't ignore or hide symptoms of a concussion. Neary said he tells young players to be alert to what is going on.

"I remind them that they have one brain and they need to keep that brain for the next 70, 80 years of their life," he said. "You don't have to suck it up like you used to, years ago."

Kyler Flahr, 17, is a middle line-backer with Campbell's Tartan football team. He has known the effects of a serious concussion. (Dean Gutheil/CBC)
Another Campbell player undergoing baseline testing Saturday was Kyler Flahr, also in Grade 12 with Maragos, who recalled how he took a number of heavy hits in a game — his first — in Grade 10. Four days after the game he experienced severe symptoms related to concussion.

Flahr was unable to walk for a spell, his speech was affected and he suffered blackouts.

"Concussions can really mess people up," Flahr said. He realized later that after the first hard hit of the game, he should have stayed on the sideline. "I should have just sat out."

"It was mainly just ego that made me keep playing," he said. "I wanted to prove myself and show the coaches that I can play."

Flahr said he is far more cautious about his play now and hopes to further develop his football skills.

"It's something that I love and want to do," he said, adding that his family is supportive but constantly reminding him that his health is their number one priority.

Equipment not a guarantee of protection

Grade 12 Campbell Collegiate student Yianni Maragos, a running back with the Tartans, goes through a battery of tests to establish a baseline on his brain functions prior to the start of the football season. (Dean Gutheil/CBC)
Neary praised coaches in Regina and Moose Jaw for their approach to safety in sports. He noted that many conduct initial practices without players donning helmets.

With their heads exposed players are more aware of what they are doing, he explained.

Neary also noted how concussions are related to sudden movement affecting the brain.

"A concussion is the movement of the brain inside the skull," he said. "You don't need to hit the head to get a concussion."

Neary added that in some ways players can be in greater danger because they feel invincible underneath a lot of protective gear.

"I don't think the equipment has helped the situation with concussions," he said. "They feel that they're gladiators out there."

Maragos said he and players like Flahr have learned a lot about how to hit safely and still produce on the field.

"We do a lot of non-head-to-head contact without diminishing our performance," he said.

With files from CBC's Dean Gutheil