Sports related concussions are a major concern that has drawn national attention over the past several years. The University of New Mexico has engaged in a progressive research program examining concussions in their athletes and is the only institution in the U.S. to provide comprehensive brain-imaging health checkups for all student-athletes in contact sports.

The UNM Board of Regents today will consider funding requests for a number of special projects, including a request for $1.5 million to continue the brain imaging project for student-athletes. The money would pay for half the costs for the first three years of operations. The nonprofit Mind Research Network, an affiliate of Lovelace Biomedical and Environmental Research Institute has funded the program on its own so far and believes the rest of the money can be raised through grants and donations.

Last year, Kent Kiehl, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and law at UNM and Executive Science Officer of MRN, worked with Andrew Mayer, an assistant research professor in the Department of Neurology at the Health Sciences Center, and a research scientist at MRN, and Vince Calhoun, a distinguished professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and the chief technology officer at MRN founded Project Brain Safe, to provide baseline measurements.

They are working with the UNM Athletics Department to do noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brains of men’s basketball, football, soccer, diving and baseball teams. The project also is scanning the brains of athletes from the women’s basketball, volleyball, soccer, and diving teams and men and women from the UNM cheer squad.

So far the Brain Safe Project has scanned more than 253 student-athletes. The program is studying the long term effect of any brain concussions athletes may sustain during contact sports. The long-term goal is to find a way to minimizing the impact of concussions. A concussion is defined as a mild traumatic brain injury that alters the way the brain functions. Kiehl and his colleagues hope to convince first the Board of Regents and then the New Mexico legislature to fund the innovative project.

UNM Lobo athletes receive state-of-the-art concussion assessments by the expert Lobo team of doctors, who are affiliated with UNM Hospital, and also MRI scans from the Brain Safe Project. The concussed athlete and his/her family are then given all the medical information to help them make a choice about whether to continue in the sport. 

The project has already yielded important results. The baseline scans have found that 56 percent initially showed ‘incidental findings.’ Kiehl says “The vast majority of these incidental findings are benign issues like sinus problems, enlarged glands and cysts of no medical significance.”  He noted in rare cases the Brain Safe Program has found incidental findings that required additional medical testing and the athletes were referred to doctors for follow-up care.

Nationally, concussions suffered as a result of a sports injury are a growing concern. The Centers for Disease Control estimated there were approximately 300,000 sports related traumatic brain injuries in the U.S. in 2006. But that number is based only on events with a loss of consciousness, which make up about 10 to 20 percent of sports related traumatic brain injury. The Brain Safe program is uniquely designed to help answer critical questions regarding the concussions in UNM student athletes.