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Gentle on My Mind: NCAA, NFL, GE, and Others Collaborate to Prevent Brain Injuries

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/28/2013

For U.S. college basketball fans, March Madness is in full swing—but the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is proving that there’s method amid the madness, and it’s listening to the head as well as the heart.

As part of its commitment to the health and safety of student-athletes, big-time college sports’ governing body has announced that it will participate in an unprecedented strategic alliance formed by the National Football League and General Electric to facilitate innovation and advance research into brain injuries.

The Head Health Initiative will be a four-year, $60 million collaboration funded by the NFL, GE, and Under Armour, and supported by the NCAA and the U.S. military. Its goal is to develop next-generation imaging technologies to improve diagnosis and management of concussions and uncover innovative approaches to protecting the brain.

The far-ranging initiative hopes not only to protect amateur and professional athletes but to develop technologies that can protect and treat military personnel and the general public as well. NCAA president Mark Emmert said the strategic alliance is an extension of the NCAA’s 107-year-old founding mission to protect the health and well-being of student-athletes.

“Now you have a moment where there are 460,000 college students playing NCAA sports across the United States,” Emmert said at the initiative’s March 11 announcement in New York. “They play in 23 different sports. They participate in 89 different championships. But the mission of the NCAA is still exactly the same: to make sure we provide for and are attentive to the health and well-being of those young men and those young women. To have this initiative going forward to provide the kind of research and innovation that we all need to keep track of and protect our young people from injuries while they participate in sport and beyond is a wonderful moment for us.”

The NCAA will support research funded by the partnership by providing scientists with opportunities to study concussions and their effects beyond football—the sport that has brought the injury’s detrimental effects to the forefront of health and safety discussions. It will also encourage its member institutions to participate in the initiative by having medical staff who work with student-athletes speak with students about volunteering for study.

Student-athlete participation will allow the initiative to expand beyond football to other sports, such as soccer, lacrosse, and ice hockey. Volunteers from the NCAA’s community of student-athletes will provide the diversity in concussion studies necessary to understand how the risks and effects might differ between women and men, and in different sports.

The NCAA has sought to play a greater role in recent years to protect athletes from concussions by funding research, adjusting playing rules, and providing concussion management guidelines. For example, a recent change to kickoff rules in football reduced the number of concussions on those plays last fall by 50 percent. The NCAA has also funded grants to research various aspects of the injuries in recent years, including one of the first large-scale, long-range examinations of concussions, currently being conducted by four NCAA-member universities.

The collaboration between the NFL, GE, the NCAA, and other partners aims to develop the technologies needed to more accurately diagnose brain injuries and develop protocols to more effectively treat them. Some of those existing technologies, such as Diffusor Tensor Imaging (DTI) coupled with functional brain imaging, broaden the view of the brain for researchers and could provide more powerful tools for diagnosis. The partnership aims to develop those technologies and make them more widely available to definitively diagnose brain injuries at earlier stages.

Representatives of each partner stressed that the Head Health Initiative’s focus is not exclusive to football, or even to sports. It aims to take a broader view of the issue and use what is learned on the competitive courts and fields to improve the health care available to the general public, where concussions are a risk in bicycle accidents, auto collisions, and household accidents just as they are on a football field.

“This is going to be felt more broadly in the health care system than just what we’re talking about today,” said GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt. “We are going to bring the best of the best to this effort to really study the diagnosis, track therapies, and do everything we can around the whole science of mild and traumatic brain injury.”

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