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They’re dwarfed by a hockey puck, but that’s not stopping the lab mice at Robarts Research Institute from helping concussion scientists understand more about what happens when a player gets hit on the ice.
Robarts researchers gave four-time Olympic-champion hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser and Western University women’s hockey assistant coach Kalley Armstrong an update on their mice studies Wednesday morning, part of the school’s fifth annual See the Line concussion symposium.
The yearly conference is meant to promote research, reduce concussions and boost awareness among doctors, coaches, players and parents of brain injuries.
In the research world, clinical trials usually begin on mice then grow and expand into human subjects. But with concussions, Robarts is doing the opposite.
Concussions in athletes are complex. There’s dozens of variables, from how hard a player is hit and where, to their medical history, genetics and their history of concussive injuries.
Lab mice don’t have that baggage, said Arthur Brown, principal investigator.
The Robarts team is trying to find predictable concussion markers and outcomes in mice and translate what they find to better diagnostic and treatment tools for human patients.
“Once we develop a good correlation between the animal and the human, and we measure the same things, and repeat them, we can start to think about how to move those treatments into the human sphere,” he said.
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One of the biggest priorities is finding an objective diagnostic tool for concussions – a test that can determine whether patients require treatment or can just be sent home to rest. All doctors, coaches and parents have now, Brown said, are subjective tests.
“Things like, ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ Can you remember your phone number?” he said.
“Do you have a headache? Did you lose consciousness? But it’s all subjective. . . . It’s like going to the emergency room and being asked, ‘Do you feel like you had a heart attack?’”
Brown is hoping, eventually, a blood test will give doctors the answers they’re looking for.
But in the meantime, researchers are doing detailed brain scans, blood work and cognitive testing on mice to see how mild concussions affect them. They want to find how the injury changes the brain’s chemistry, after impact and over time.
The research push is long overdue, said Armstrong, who was sidelined from school and the ice for a year after a concussion.
“I wouldn’t want to see anyone else go through that. I couldn’t even be outside when the sun was out,” she said.
“It’s an invisible injury.”
After years on the ice, and plenty of hits, Wickenheiser is glad concussions are finally getting the attention they deserve. She wants to change the culture around concussions in sport, specifically women’s hockey.
“It’s important for young female athletes to pay attention,” she said.
“Even a mild hit can be a severe one.”
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