MSU's Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders Holds 30th Annual Oyer Lecture

Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders Brings Concussion Discussion to Oyer Lecture Series

Concussions have come to be expected in heavy contact sports such as football and soccer. However, Ryan Tierney, Ph.D., Graduate Program Director in kinesiology at Temple University, conducts research on how these injuries may be related to genetics and sub-concussions — smaller, overlooked head injuries. 

Tierney presented on concussions as part of the 30th anniversary of the Oyer Lecture Series, which was held on Feb. 21 at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. 

Chair Dimitar Deliyski, Ph.D., introduced the speaker, giving credit to the Graduate Student Advisory Committee (GSAC), an organization of Communicative Sciences and Disorders (CSD) graduate students, which annually selects an academic leader to give the Oyer Lecture.

Greater Understanding: From Concussions to Sub-Concussions 

Tierney, who has worked in athletic training and rehabilitation, began by addressing the concept of concussions, sub-concussions and how past rehabilitation practices failed to respect the healing time needed for athletes’ brains to recover from an impact.

Concussions, he stated, can happen on or off the field, and in our daily lives. Whiplash, blast forces and seemingly trivial head impacts are all examples of stresses that can lead to concussions. He said even the smallest bumps and jolts can cause distress. Attempts to measure an exact threshold for these head impacts don’t amount to much, because situations vary and people report symptoms after different amounts of force have been applied.

“The tough thing about concussions is that when you go to the ER, the MRI is going to show up normal. The presentation of symptoms is different in different folks. I like to say concussions are like faces: they’re all different,” said Tierney.

Sub-concussions, the hundreds of minor blows a person can experience without symptoms of a clinical concussion, may have long-term effects. Tierney informed the audience that studies have been done to show that cognitive differences exist in athletes from pre-season to postseason. These differences may be influenced by the number of sub-concussions they received during play.

To further study concussions, Tierney also looked at the impacts of head impacts on soccer players, who take direct impacts of a soccer ball to the forehead during play. He studied the impacts on men and women, both with protective headgear and without headgear. 

The Risk of Unreported Concussions

Tierney stressed that while it is important to understand the concepts of concussions and sub-concussions, it is also important to realize the significance of reporting symptoms to ensure players don’t worsen existing symptoms or slow the healing process. 

In the past, players were often put back into games despite only receiving a quick check for concussion symptoms. Tierney said this disregards the fact that symptoms can be delayed and could endanger the player further. In fact, he said up to 50 percent of concussions go unreported. This lack of reporting applies to sub-concussions as well.

“What’s the significance? No one cares about these incidents unless they reach the concussive level. As I alluded to, there are hundreds or thousands of sub-concussive blows that athletes can take that are never reported,” said Tierney. 

While there are multiple screenings and tests in place for athletes to complete before returning to play, unreported concussions continue to be a problem.

The Connection Between Concussions and Genetics

As a self-proclaimed “concussions generalist,” Tierney’s research covers many different aspects of these head impacts—even the influence of genetics. His team was one of the first to connect the implications of genetic influence to head injuries.

More specifically, his research delves into how certain proteins in a person’s DNA may predispose them to greater risks of injury. In turn, this could lead to a higher chance of getting a serious concussion. Tierney studied a gene, known as APOE4, and found that athletes with a higher concentration of this gene showed higher critical brain injury scores.

With the confusion some may have over the concept of sub-concussions, Tierney wants to explore how a foundation of sub-concussions might increase one’s risk for a serious concussion in the future.

While Tierney’s research is largely focused on athletics, a new concept might be on the horizon for him and his team: microparticles in the bloodstream that contain information about injuries, what cells these particles came from and the mortality rate of the individual. Investigating these particles might give some clues to the severity of different concussions. 

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By John Castro