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Student athletes testing in NeuraPerformance Brain Center's mobile center
Photo courtesy NeuraPerformance Brain Center

A New Cognitive Test for Student Athletes

3.8 million sports-related concussions affect U.S. students every year.

Dr. Shawn Caldwell, the clinical director of Denver’s NeuraPerformance Brain Center, conducts hundreds of sports physicals each year. During these annual tests, mandatory for kids enrolling in Colorado sports leagues, he listens to the kids” hearts and lungs, and takes their blood pressure. “But we do nothing with the brain,” he says.

Leaving the brain out of a physical concerned Caldwell. “Few kids die of a heart attack on the football field, but there are dozens of concussions.”

In fact, the American Academy of Neurology estimates 3.8 million sports-related concussions affect U.S. students every year—a trend that has led to concussion-related emergency room visits doubling for kids between ages eight and 13 in the past decade. In sports like “football, hockey, and rugby, they all hit each other. If we don’t start monitoring cognitive abilities, those sports are going to die,” Caldwell says.

In response to this alarming rise in concussions, Caldwell and the NeuraPerformance team developed a baseline test to measure cognitive abilities. The idea is for kids to take the cognitive exam before a sports season, and then if a head injury should ensue, they can redo the exam, and compare the baseline test to the post-injury test. That way, Caldwell says, “we can see if there’s a difference (in their cognitive ability),” then use that information to identify the injury’s effects and prepare for the best course of treatment.

At the beginning of the year, NeuraPerformance outfitted a Sprinter van and launched their mobile testing center. “We can show up at a sports practice and test 10 kids in under an hour, right there on the field,” Caldwell says. His vision is to have every child on the playground or sports field tested every year.

“We don’t want to compare kids to each other, we want to compare them to themselves,” Caldwell explains. Everyone’s brain is different, so treating all head injuries on a case-by-case basis is important. Taking a snapshot of a healthy brain and comparing it to a snapshot of a post-injury brain makes pinpointing any differences in an individual much easier, says Caldwell. “If we can properly prepare to treat potential injuries, then parents and children (need not) fear participating in sports.”

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