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Concussion Expert Wins $500K MacArthur 'Genius' Grant


Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, a leading concussion researcher and the founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center, was named a "genius grant" recipient today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The 22 recipients found out about their grants through "a phone call out of the blue" from the foundation, learning that they'll receive $500,000 in equal quarterly installments over the next five years. Better yet, the money comes with no strings attached—MacArthur Fellows have the freedom to put the money to use however they see fit.

For Guskiewicz, who also serves as a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the prize money is bound to end up going towards concussion-related research.

Guskiewicz has long been one of the nation's leading concussion researchers, sounding the alarm about repetitive head injuries before this recent wave of public concussion awareness. One look at the list of publications on his resume is enough to make your head spin.

• From August 1999 through July 2003, Guskiewicz worked with a team to discover a safe and cost-effective method for diagnosing and evaluating concussions in a study called, "A Prospective Investigation of Mild Head Injury (MHI) in Sport: A Prevention Initiative." Based on the results, Guskiewicz and his team concluded that athletes with a history of multiple concussions may experience an increase in concussion symptoms on a regular basis.

• In 2003, Guskiewicz also had a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, where he suggested that athletes with a prior history of concussion would be more likely to sustain future concussions.

• In 2004, Guskiewicz wrote a position statement for the National Athletic Trainers' Association on the management of sport-related concussion. He recommended that all athletes take baseline concussion tests before the start of a season to determine the athlete's typical level of healthy brain activity, and noted that recovery in young athletes may take longer than in older athletes.

• And on a panel at the National Athletic Trainers' Association's annual meetings earlier this summer, Guskiewicz said that no matter how advanced athletic equipment (such as helmets) becomes, it's unlikely that there will ever be a way to fully prevent concussions.

"The brain is still going to move inside that cranial cavity regardless of whether there's a helmet on or not," Guskiewicz said.

He suggested that "behavior modification is perhaps more important in addressing the problem [of concussions]," such as teaching proper tackling techniques to young football players. One of the major grievances in the concussion lawsuit filed against the NCAA last week was that football coaches still teach defensive players to lead with their head when pursuing a ballcarrier.

I spoke with Guskiewicz via email earlier this summer for a story on youth concussion laws, and he echoed his concerns about the recovery time for young athletes. He stressed that athletes under 18 years of age were at the highest risk for the deadly Second Impact Syndrome, which occurs when an athlete returns from a concussion before fully healing and receives another concussive hit, compounding the damage.

"It is only a matter of time until there are data showing how these state concussion laws are preventing catastrophic injuries, saving lives, and preventing chronic outcomes from repeated concussion," Guskiewicz told me.

What does Guskiewicz plan on doing with his MacArthur grant? He told CNN.com that he plans to develop rehabilitation protocols for both athletes and soldiers with head injuries.

"I also hope that our MacArthur award will allow us to explore creative ways to expand that work for youth athletes, and helping to protect them as they move up through the ranks," he said.

As my colleague Sarah Sparks has noted over on the Inside School Research blog, Guskiewicz wasn't the only one with educational ties to win a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation this year. Roland G. Fryer, Jr., known for his work on achievement gaps, was also named a MacArthur Fellow today.

Photo: Kevin Guskiewicz, 45, a sport medicine researcher and professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is one of 22 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants." (Charles Harris/John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation/AP)

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