Ten years and $10 million: How a donor’s vision revolutionized sports neurology

Dr. Giza with brain model
Dr. Christopher Giza, director of the Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program reflects on ten years of accomplishments since the program's launch in 2014. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/ UCLA Health).

Ten years ago, a $10 million gift from Steve Tisch launched the BrainSPORT (Safety Performance Outreach Research and Treatment) Program at UCLA, catalyzing groundbreaking research and training in the field of sports neurology and neuropsychology. It has over the past decade filled a critical gap, providing a new generation of experts equipped to address the complexities of sports-related brain injuries and understand the beneficial effects of physical exercise on brain function. 

“In a field where there were virtually no training programs, BrainSPORT has trained almost 20 professionals. That would have almost certainly not happened without that funding,” said Dr. Christopher Giza, director of the Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program. 

Advanced Research Core and the CARE Project

A significant accomplishment of the program has been its engagement with the Concussion Assessment, Research, and Education (CARE) project. Funded by the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense, the CARE project is the largest sports-concussion research initiative ever undertaken. It encompasses 30 sites and involves more than 50,000 student athletes. UCLA’s Brain Injury Research Center has played a pivotal role, contributing to more than 150 publications, as well as ongoing data collection.

“Our ability to be one of the advanced sites for the CARE Consortium is built partly on the reputation of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center and BrainSPORT, and the Tisch donation enabled us to purchase helmet sensors for the UCLA football team,” Dr. Giza said. “This put us on the inside track to be able to measure head impacts in football, along with our known expertise in advanced neuroimaging and measuring blood biomarkers.”

These helmet sensors measure the impact players absorb during collisions, providing critical data for concussion research. The policies implemented following a landmark study on concussions in collegiate sports, which were part of the CARE project, have significantly enhanced player safety by reducing the number of players who return to the field too soon after a diagnosed concussion.

Dr. Giza with helmet
Dr. Giza explains how helmet sensors measure the impact football players absorb during collision. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/ UCLA Health).

Pioneering Concussion Research in Adolescents

Building on the success of the CARE project, the BrainSPORT Program secured an additional $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2021 to study concussion and brain health in children ages 11 to 17. Known as the CARE for Kids (CARE4Kids) initiative, this research aims to enroll more than 360 participants and utilize objective biomarkers to predict which children will experience persistent symptoms after a concussion.

“The idea was built on our experience with the CARE Consortium,” Dr. Giza noted. “The largest population of individuals who get concussions are adolescents and younger. By using MRI, blood and neuropsychological testing, autonomic testing, heart rate and blood pressure measures, the NIH wanted to see if we could gather objective biomarkers that would help us better predict who has persisting symptoms versus who gets better following a concussion.”

With enrollment for the first part of the study now nearly 90% complete, the CARE4Kids Consortium, led by UCLA BrainSPORT, is preparing for a complex analysis that will provide crucial insights to help transform the management of concussions in adolescents.

Expanding Horizons and Future Goals

In addition to supporting these significant projects, Tisch’s donation has opened doors for potential collaborations with professional sports teams and created a multidisciplinary clinical program not only for pros, but also for youth athletes. From a background in sports and pediatric neurology, Dr. Giza is thinking forward to involvement in the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics. The program’s growing reputation and faculty have also led to significant opportunities for expanded programs and national and international collaborations. Some examples of this include Dr. Meeryo Choe, education committee chair for the Concussion In Sport Group; Dr. Josh Kamins, a contributor to the new definition of mild TBI from the American College of Rehabilitation Medicine; Dr. Talin Babikian, who helped educate clinicians in Armenia on trauma-informed care; and Dr. Kevin Bickart, who leads the Balanced Recovery And Integrated Neuroscience TBI treatment program with Operation Mend.

The BrainSPORT Program has done a lot within the world of sports, but Dr. Giza believes there are opportunities to broaden its scope.

“While it now is focused on sports and physical activity, I want our mission to be geared toward making healthy brains for all adults and kids,” he said. “That’s a huge mission, and we want to partner with likeminded organizations to support us. We did a lot with a couple of big donations. With additional support, we could transform the way we approach brain health in our region, state and, hopefully, the whole world.”


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