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NIDCD Study Part of National Football League Research Partnership on Concussions in Young Athletes

December 16, 2013

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) will guide one of the six pilot projects that recently received funding from the Sports and Health Research Program, which is a partnership among the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Football League (NFL), and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). These pilot studies will take a closer look at the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) on young athletes, and will focus on improving concussion diagnosis and identifying potential biomarkers that could be used to track the recovery process.

The NIDCD study, "Eye Movement Dynamics: A Rapid Objective Involuntary Measure of Concussion/Mild Traumatic Brain Injury," will be conducted by researchers at the Indiana University School of Optometry, Bloomington, in collaboration with team trainers, physicians, and athletes at Indiana University and local high schools. The two-year study builds on earlier research showing that involuntary eye movements are common in people with mild TBI and reflect problems with the vestibular (balance) system.

"Central balance pathways are often affected by concussion," said Gordon Hughes, M.D., director of clinical trials at the NIDCD, which supports research in balance as well as hearing and other disciplines. "This study will apply what we have learned about the systems involved in balance to possibly fill a critical need in making reliable and on-the-spot diagnoses of mild traumatic brain injury in athletes."

The pilot project will support the development of a portable eye tracker device, in the form of a pair of goggles, to record eye movements. The researchers will then compare the eye tracking data to results from a commonly used cognitive test to determine if changes in eye movement can serve as a diagnostic marker for mild TBI. If successful, the portable diagnostic device could become an efficient and easy method to help diagnose concussions on playing field sidelines and also a way to monitor injury progression and recovery.

"The NIDCD has a long history of supporting technological advances in diagnosis and treatment," said James F. Battey, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIDCD, "and this project would offer sports trainers and coaches a valuable diagnostic tool that could quickly and reliably identify athletes who require treatment for mild TBI." The principal investigators of the project are Nicholas Port, Ph.D., and Steven Hitzeman, OD, at the Indiana University School of Optometry, Bloomington.

In 2012, the NFL donated $30 million to FNIH for research studies on injuries affecting athletes, with brain trauma being the primary area of focus. For more information about the NIDCD and other projects supported through the Sports and Health Research Program, read the NIH press release. For more information about vestibular problems, read the NIDCD Balance Disorders page.