UNC researcher wins 'genius grant' for work on concussions

UNC prof studies concussions

Staff WriterSeptember 21, 2011 

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— A UNC-Chapel Hill researcher who won a MacArthur Fellowship - the so-called "genius grant" - says he hopes the attention from the award will attract more money for his work in understanding sports-related concussions.

Kevin Guskiewicz, 45, was among the 22 MacArthur winners for 2011 announced Tuesday. He'll get $500,000 from the fellowship over the next five years, and can use the money however he wants.

"It probably sounds crazy, but I want to turn the $500,000 into $1.5 million, if we can," Guskiewicz said.

He wants to use some to study brain injuries soldiers receive from IED blasts, injuries that bear some similarities to sports-related concussions. Traumatic brain injuries have been called the signature injury of the Iraq war for U.S. troops, and also are common among those serving in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, as news broke about the grant and as well-wishers clogged Guskiewicz's email and voicemail, he was spending the morning in a long-planned meeting with officials from Fort Bragg. He told them that he hoped to use some of the money to work with their troops.

"We've been doing pilot work with them for about 18 months, and this is a great opportunity to take it to a new level," he said.

Using the money for more research is typical of Guskiewicz, said Stephen Marshall, an epidemiologist and acting director of UNC-CH's Injury Prevention Research Center, who has collaborated with him on several research projects.

"Kevin is a genuinely nice person, and extremely productive, so much that it's almost disconcerting at first because you can't believe this is real," Marshall said. "Some academic researchers are just in it for their ego, but his motivation is that he honestly wants to make the world a better place."

Guskiewicz, a Kenan Distinguished Professor and chairman of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science, makes his interest in sport-related brain injuries infectious, and has drawn together a team of about 30 people from several disciplines who often work with him, Marshall said.

"It's not that he coerces you, but he has this vision, and you can't help but buy into it," Marshall said. "It's like a really good novel: at some point, you absolutely know you should put it down and cook dinner, but you just have to read that next chapter, then the next one."

The BESS test

Guskiewicz was raised in Pennsylvania, where he played football and tennis in high school. He became interested in concussions when he worked as a trainer for three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and didn't like what he saw when players took hard hits to the head.

In particular, the way decisions were made among the various teams about whether a player was ready to play again after a concussion seemed arbitrary, he said.

Then, while studying for his doctorate at the University of Virginia, he began research that showed that simple tests of balance, such as standing awhile on one foot with your eyes closed, could be effective in determining whether someone had suffered a concussion. That eventually led to the development of an elegantly simple approach called the Balance Error Scoring System, which includes a small foam pad, a stopwatch and a checklist to test athletes who have taken a hard blow.

Dustin Fink, a high school sports trainer in Illinois who writes The Concussion Blog and himself suffers lingering effects from nearly a dozen concussions, often posts Guskiewicz's research.

He also uses the BESS system on his athletes, and said that it underlines one of the great things about Guskiewicz: that he understands not only the lab, but the sidelines, too.

"He not only has the ability to do important research, but to come up with ideas that are practical in terms of athletes and trainers," Fink said.

Studying concussions

Guskiewicz has worked with retired NFL players for a decade, studying the long-term effects of concussions. In one study, he found that those with a history of three of more concussions were 20 percent more likely to develop clinical depression than players who hadn't suffered one.

The NFL rejected the research of Guskiewicz's team for years. Now, Guskiewicz is on the league's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and earlier this year UNC-CH announced that he would get matching $100,000 grants from both the NFL and the NFL Players Association for concussion research.

His work has led to new sideline testing guidelines for players of all ages, and a better understanding of the dangers of concussions for players, parents, trainers and health care professionals.

Among other projects, Guskiewicz and his colleagues are now using instruments in the football and hockey players' helmets to study the relationship between magnitude and number of head impacts and concussion symptoms.

Winning the MacArthur Fellowship, Guskiewicz said Tuesday, was thrilling and particularly gratifying because it was recognition from people who weren't his peers. His research, he said, is judged almost solely by peers, whether it's evaluating a grant proposal or a manuscript for possible publication.

The grant is partly a measure of how much Guskiewicz's work has lifted understanding of sports-related concussions.

"When he started, it wasn't a big arena," Marshall said. "Now it is."

Guskiewicz said that he learned he had won the award Sept. 9. He was in a hotel lobby in Minneapolis waiting for a shuttle to the airport when his cell phone rang and the president of the MacArthur Foundation, Robert L. Gallucci, was on the other end.

"I've got some exciting news for you that's probably going to change your life," Gallucci said.

That was fitting. Guskiewicz's work itself has already changed lives and will change many more, Marshall said.

"For athletes, the work he has done means added quality of life later in life," he said. "It means that when you finish playing, and you have graduated from college, you have the chance to be there for your kids and loved ones more fully."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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