Dartmouth Researchers Investigate the Cognitive Effects of Athlete Head Impacts

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Thomas McAllister

Thomas McAllister, Millennium Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Neuropsychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine, is the lead author on the study reported in the journal Neurology. (photo by Mark L. Washburn)

Dartmouth faculty and students played prominent roles in a recent study on the cognitive effects of head impacts among student athletes. Tested at the beginning and end of one season, 22 percent of those students who participated in contact sports scored significantly lower in memory and learning skills than expected, as opposed to only 4 percent of non-contact sport athletes.

“These results were found shortly after the season and we do not know how long the effect [of the head impacts] lasts,” said Thomas McAllister, Millennium Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Neuropsychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. “While it may be bad for the 22 percent, the good news is that overall there were few differences in the test results between the athletes in contact sports and the athletes in non-contact sports,” he added.

The study subjects were drawn from Dartmouth College and other Division I schools. The groups, numbering more than 250 in total, included football and hockey players, who were compared to participants in track, crew, and Nordic skiing—the contact vs. non-contact sports athletes.

McAllister is the lead author on the study report published in the May 16, 2012, online issue of the journal Neurology. He was joined in the study by Geisel’s Laura Flashman, Arthur Maerlender, Margaret Grove, and Tor Tosteson; and John Turco, director of the Dartmouth College Health Service, as well as investigators from other institutions.

Richard Greenwald, an adjunct assistant professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering and co-author on the paper, played a unique part in the study. Founder and president of the Lebanon-based company Simbex, he pioneered the innovative Head Impact Telemetry System that enabled the scientists to emplace small sensors in the helmets of the football and hockey players to monitor the head impacts.

For more on the study, see the press release from the American Academy of Neurology.