Landmark study of youth concussions at UTA

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on October 26, 2011 at 10:24 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 26 at 10:31 PM

ARLINGTON — Some call it a "bell-ringing," or a "dinger."

During a mid-September football game, 14-year-old Dylan Sommerfeld actually saw stars.

"I got hit and blacked out," Dylan said. "Whenever I saw again after that, their jerseys were supposed to be blue-and-white, and I saw blue-and-yellow sparkles."

The episode didn't initially raise an alarm with him or his father, who had played football as a kid. Still, Dylan was brought to the Brain Injury Laboratory at the University of Texas at Arlington.

He and 2,200 other student athletes from two schools are subjects in what may the largest study ever on youth concussions.

It starts in a high-tech balance booth that sways beneath the feet, challenging equilibrium. Students also take a computer test.

"They come in between 24 and 72 hours after an injury and we take a snapshot of them after their injury," explained Jacob Resch, the UTA brain injury researcher conducting the study. "So [we test] in regards to their memory, reaction time, the way they process new information, with the neuro-psych testing. [As well as] their self-reported symptoms that they're experiencing, as well as their balance assessment."

Results are compared to benchmarks set by each athlete in the same tests before the season ever started.

Right now, there is very little data about how a concussion affects a young brain that is still developing and considered highly vulnerable. Researchers believe testing various aspects of the brain and body can yield important information about the affects of concussion which can't be seen on a brain scan.

Researchers had expected to see about 30 students all year long. Two months into school, they've seen more than that. Eighteen of them from DeSoto High School.

"I'm confident that's not all of them," said Scott Galloway, the DeSoto athletic trainer. "We still have a problem with kids reporting symptoms. So there's still a fear — right or wrong — that I'm not going to get to play if I say I have a potential concussion."

Galloway is proud of his school's participation in the study. He said he hopes the study sheds light on when it's really safe to return student athletes to play.

"He wanted to go back after a week," said Dylan's father, Dale Sommerfeld. "[Dylan] said, 'I'm fine.' But we tested him, he wasn't fine. His balance wasn't there or anything else. He couldn't remember."

Dylan can't even recall the homecoming dance, which took place two days after the football game.

"I remember that there was music," he said. "But I don't really remember what my date wore."

It took a month before Sommerfeld was cleared to hit the field again for Pantego Christian Academy. UTA researchers will continue to follow him — and the other students — until he graduates.

They are hoping to determine if kids who suffer concussion at age 14 might still be affected at 40.

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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