UCLA neuroscientist offers game plan to better understand sports concussions

Hospital emergency rooms treat more than 170,000 children each year for sports-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What do parents and coaches need to know about sports concussions in order to protect their kids and players? A commentary by Dr. Christopher Giza, director of the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT program, about sports, concussions and neuroscience appears in the June 21 online edition of Neuron. Here, Giza, a national leader in concussion research, offers a game plan for where concussion research is headed:

1. Accurate diagnosis is essential. “Concussions are the most complex injury to the most complicated organ in the human body,” said Giza, who is also a professor of pediatrics, neurology and neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. “There is no magic-bullet, catch-all test for diagnosing the disorder.”

Todd Cheney/UCLA - Dr. Christopher Giza

Giza said that although finding a single reliable test will be unlikely, doctors hope that blood work, brain imaging and electrical tests will improve concussion diagnosis and help them monitor recovery.

“A physician’s diagnosis is often informed by the patient’s reported symptoms,” he said.
“Yet not every symptom that surfaces after a head injury can be blamed on concussion.”

2. Not all head injuries are created equal. Concussion can have some of the same symptoms —headache, wooziness, disorientation and a loss of coordination — as more severe traumatic brain injuries, creating a murky overlap between the two conditions.

“We need to move away from diagnosing concussion as a black-or-white, yes-or-no answer,” Giza said. “Where an injury lands on the brain trauma spectrum isn’t always clear cut. When people with concussions have unusual symptoms or symptoms that worsen over time, it can suggest that the condition needs to be treated differently from other concussions, and that the person should see a specialist."

3. Animal studies hold the key to faster human recovery. Studying animals in the lab will accelerate neuroscientists’ quest for answers to specific questions about concussion.

Because they have shorter life spans, mice may be able to help scientists uncover life-saving insights in just months or years, as opposed to the decades it would take to study certain phenomena in humans.

“For example, how does the brain react to repeated injuries over a short period of time versus longer intervals of time?” Giza said.

Laboratory research can help scientists pinpoint the optimal amount of time required for healing and reveal the ideal level of mental and physical activity for patients during recovery. And, Giza said, understanding the biological dynamics underlying concussions will improve diagnostic tests and lead to individualized treatment — advances that could be game changers in advancing experts’ understanding of concussion and brain injuries.

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