NIU researcher seeks athletes for concussion research

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Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita is suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, which has robbed him of his memory. NIU researcher Matt Wilson is studying whether Mikita’s career might have helped cause it.

One of the few sad sidebars to the Chicago Blackhawks’ run to the 2015 Stanley Cup has been that former Hawks great Stan Mikita has been completely unaware of the excitement.

Mikita has been diagnosed with a condition known as Lewy Body Dementia, a brain condition that has robbed him of virtually every memory of his playing career – and of every other aspect of his life.

Doctors are unsure if the thousands of brain-rattling hits he took during his career contributed to the condition, but NIU researcher Matt Wilson hopes to someday help answer that question.

Wilson, a hearing scientist in the NIU Department of Audiology, is one of the few researchers in the nation studying the cumulative effect of violent collisions on the brains of athletes.

Far from being an advocate for eliminating sports such as football or hockey, he says his goal is to protect the players and make the sports safer.

“I am the biggest football fan that there is,” says Wilson, 30, of Genoa, who grew up near Pittsburgh rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “My goal is to make the sport safer and to help preserve it.”

Toward that end, he has teamed with a neuropsychologist to hold clinics for coaches, parents and athletes at DeKalb County high schools to educate them on how to recognize and treat concussions, and the importance of conservative, complete treatment.

“Parents, coaches, players all need to better understand what a concussion is and how to deal with it. Dealing with it wrong can have long term consequences. However, if you treat it right the first time, your chances of getting back out on the field are much better,” Wilson says.

He is also recruiting athletes from those sports (and others) to participate in his research, which strives to gauge the long-term effects of repeated jarring impacts to the head, whether they cause concussions or not.

He hopes that insights gained through his work will improve treatment of the injury, as well as illuminate why some people seem particularly vulnerable to concussions while others seem to seem almost immune. He also hopes it will help establish whether there are any links to diseases like Lewy Body Dementia.

Photo of a brainPotential research subjects should be:

  • Athletes between the ages of 14 and 35.
  • Half of the subjects selected will be athletes who play a contact sport (football, rugby, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, etc.)
  • The remaining half will be athletes who play non-contact sports (baseball, softball, tennis, track, golf, etc.) and who have never been diagnosed with concussions.
  • All subjects should be competing in their sport during the time of the study.

Participants will be asked to provide a brief medical history, with an emphasis on any past concussion diagnosis.

Afterward, they will perform a series of computer-based tests that measure visual and verbal working memory, reaction times and the ability to pay attention. Each also will be given an EEG brain scan and a hearing test. Testing will be conducted at the NIU Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic in DeKalb, Ill., with each subject undergoing testing three times – once prior to their athletic season, once during and once after.

Testing is conducted at no cost to participants. In fact, participants will be reimbursed for mileage and receive a stipend. Each session will last two to two-and-a-half hours.

All data gathered is considered private and is not shared with coaches or others.

Also, Wilson does not diagnose any potential injuries or prescribe treatment.

“It’s not my place to tell people whether or not they should continue playing,” he says “I will, however, educate parents and athletes. If they wish. I can help them become better at recognizing when a concussion may have occurred, and share information on how best to deal with it. But I am not in a position to be making decisions or recommendations. I am a scientist, not a medical doctor.”

Wilson is available to speak about concussions to groups of athletes, coaches and parents. He can be reached at (815) 753-7366 or via email at mwilson@niu.edu.

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