Given their unpredictability and limited treatment options, concussions have taken on an air of danger and mystery in today's debate about player safety.
However, a new test now available in the Chicago area may begin to strip away some of that mystery involving the post-concussion healing process.
IHSA responds to concussion concernsMuch like the NFL, the IHSA has recently come under fire for its concussion protocols, becoming the first high school-level athletic organization to be named as a defendant in a class-action concussion lawsuit when Bukal v. IHSA was filed last year.
Though the prep sports governing body motioned for the case to be dismissed in April, calling it "a misguided effort that threatens high school football," it has also stepped up its pro-safety initiatives in recent months.
The IHSA recently announced that it would be co-hosting a Practice Like Pros clinic in Oak Brook on Aug. 5, during which football experts such as Mike Ditka will demonstrate "progressive practice techniques" that limit contact and concussion risk. The target audience is high school football coaches.
The association unveiled its "Play Smart. Play Hard." initiative in May providing concussion information and resources meant to enhance student-athlete safety. At the same time, the IHSA installed an eight-person advisory council that includes current student-athletes, trainers, coaches, a state senator, and former Loyola Academy and Notre Dame defensive back Tregg Duerson.
Duerson is the son of the late Dave Duerson, a Pro Bowl safety for the Chicago Bears during Ditka's reign in the 1980s. His suicide in 2011 prompted major conversation -- and litigation -- about football-related head injuries after it was found that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of concussions he sustained during his playing career.
"I commend the IHSA for taking such a strong step forward as part of its ongoing player safety efforts," Tregg Duerson said in a IHSA press release. "Coming from a football family who knows first-hand both the risks and rewards of playing the sports we love, I'm committed to continuing to honor my father's legacy by working with the IHSA, student-athletes, coaches, parents and schools in Illinois to better protect all of our athletes."
In June, Athletico began offering Brain Network Activation (BNA) testing at five locations in the Chicago area: Aurora, Bannockburn, LaGrange, Niles and Orland Park.
The noninvasive test was recently cleared by the FDA with the purpose of assessing brain function in 14- to 24-year-old athletes, giving health professionals the ability to track the brain's recovery in the weeks after a concussion.
During the 30-minute test, a 64-electrode net is placed on the patient's head to analyze the brain's electrical activity while simple tests -- memory and cognitive -- are performed with the aid of a computer.
Athletico recommends a baseline test before an athlete's season starts in order to measure how the patient's brain functions normally. That way, in the event of an in-season concussion, the patient can again be tested, and the results will show how much post-concussion brain activity differs from the baseline.
Subsequent tests can be used to see when brain activity has returned to normal, a sign that it's safe for the athlete to get back on the field.
The BNA data could also prevent an athlete from returning to play before the brain has fully recovered -- an important service since a second head injury after an initial concussion greatly increases the risk of extensive brain damage.
This approach is unique in the world of concussion tests, said Ronen Gadot, CEO of ElMindA, the company that developed the BNA technology. Traditional tests examine only the injury's symptoms, while BNA provides a look at the actual injury inside the athlete's brain.
"In our research, in hundreds of cases already, we've clearly seen that the BNA allows us to actually separate the symptoms from the injury itself," Gadot said. "Every concussion is really a big puzzle. Not all concussions are created equal, so it's important to have as many pieces of the puzzle as possible."
To some, BNA may seem like an obvious step to take, but in other cases cost could be prohibitive. Gadot said insurance doesn't cover the baseline test, for which Athletico currently charges $199. It's also unlikely that a school or athletic program would pay for it without recovering the expense in fees paid by parents.
Still, BNA tests have the potential to be in high demand, since the CDC estimates between 1.6 million and 3.8 million people suffer a concussion while participating in a sport or recreational activity every year.
ElMindA is an Israeli company, but a lab in Elk Grove is one of 11 that it operates in the United States. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and a group of NFL Hall of Famers learned about the company's BNA tests during a trip to Israel last month.
Chicago is the first American market where the test is widely offered through Athletico. With BNA's success so far, Gadot said, ElMindA plans to expand across the country and get FDA clearance for testing beyond the 14-to-24 age group that it targets.
Scientists, legislators and sports organizations alike continue to work to limit the danger of head injuries in all sports, from peewee to the pros.
"There is a lot of effort and a lot of stakeholders who are interested in seeing concussion research: the NFL, the Department of Defense ... there are many new tools that shed more light on those injuries, and of course, BNA is one of those tools," Gadot said. "BNA is a major step forward, but the brain is extremely complicated. There is still a lot to learn."