OGDEN — The Winter Dew Tour may not be stopping here anymore, but that hasn’t prevented a group of Weber State University students from continuing a research project that could help protect extreme snow sports athletes from a common, debilitating injury.
In American sports, football is king, and concussions have been at the forefront of the discussion the past few years. But little or no research has been done regarding concussions in snow sports, and that’s where the team from Weber State is stepping in.
The project started last year, when the athletic training and nursing departments at the university saw an opportunity to provide students with real-world experience dealing with sports injuries. At the Dew Tour stop at Snowbasin, several WSU students were brought on board to help respond to athletes injured in the competition, and to collect data that could help in the development of technologies to minimize or prevent concussions in the future.
Their multifaceted research includes blood work, cognitive tests, video monitoring and most recently, a new sensor attached to athletes’ helmets that measures the impact they sustain when they crash.
While the bulk of the recent focus on concussions has centered around football players, competitive skiers and snowboarders are likely to suffer concussions at higher rates and more forceful impacts, said Matt Donahue, an assistant professor at WSU and one of the project’s leaders.
“Extreme snow sport athletes compete at high speeds, get lots of air, and they come down on a solid, icy surface,” Donahue said. “That’s a recipe for frequent and severe concussions.”
At Snowbasin last year, students drew blood from about 50 athletes before the competition to establish a baseline. This season, the WSU team traveled to the Dew Tour stop in Breckenridge, Colo., to continue their long-term research.
“What we’re looking for is differences in biological markers in the brain before and after a crash,” Donahue said. “These athletes have probably suffered multiple concussions, but they have rarely been properly diagnosed or properly cared for afterward.”
The research at the Dew Tour is contributing to the first-of-its-kind, four-year longitudinal study at WSU investigating overall brain health in college athletes, from incoming freshmen to graduating seniors. The study uses biomarkers to identify possible brain decay and memory loss in athletes who participate in contact sports throughout their college careers.
New to the project this season is a sensor called the Shockbox, which is attached to a helmet and measures the force of impact to the head when an athlete crashes.
“The helmet sensors are rigged to go off at a certain threshold, not just a tap or a bump,” said Tiffany Vlahos, a senior in athletic training who is assisting in the research. “Green means it’s a mild hit and not really serious. If it’s yellow we’ll let the athlete know we picked up a collision and then check for signs of a concussion and determine if further assessments are needed.”
So far, use of the Shockbox has been very limited, as ski and snowboard athletes have been reluctant to wear it during competition. Donahue said the research team hopes to expand its use to other sports where concussions are common, such as hockey.
While it’s too early to come to any definitive conclusions, he said the team is starting to home in on potential biomarkers that cause concussion symptoms and affect brain function.
“There just aren’t enough pure numbers yet to say ‘this is the biomarker we’re looking for’,” he said. “We need to do this over the course of a number of years — then we can start to narrow down what we’re looking for.”
One major obstacle to the ongoing research is funding. The project received an internal grant from WSU to get things started, and participants are looking for funding from any source they can, including private partners.
“We are running out of funding, but it’s essential this research continues if we are to change attitudes about high-impact youth sports and helmet requirements,” said Jordan Hamson-Utley, assistant professor in athletic training. “It’s not just the athlete who is sidelined for a concussion we’re concerned about — it’s the athlete who takes repeated, undetected blows to the head.
“We can’t repair the damage, but we can stop it from happening.”