UI alumnus focused on concussion treatment, prevention

By Ryan Wilson

When Kevin Jackson goes to Illinois football games, he’s not following the ball like the fans; he’s following the players.

Jackson, a former running back for the Illini from 1991-1994, sits up in a booth and spots for the team during games. He follows every Illinois player in the game and watches for any injuries the team may not see from the sidelines. If he notices a player favoring a part of his body, Jackson will call down to the sideline and recommend the player rest.

“It’s kind of hard to watch the game, because you’re trying to watch the players,” Jackson said.

This past season was his first time spotting for team. He went to every practice before the season — including to camp Rantoul — to learn more from the athletic trainers and team staff on how to find injured players. If he misses an injured player in a game, Jackson can watch replays on the TV in his booth.

He said he didn’t have too many instances in his first year, as the football staff would often sideline a player before Jackson called.

However, making recommendations to sideline players is not the only way Jackson is trying to help the injured. With the help of Dr. Huan (John) Wang and Dr. Rachel Rubin of Carle Hospital, Jackson created a cooling helmet device that straps onto someone’s head and neck to help reduce the effects of a head injury.

“Basically we’re speeding up their cooling process … in a way that your body can handle and be functioning just fine,” Jackson said.

When athletes are competing, their blood is pumping at an increased rate to provide oxygen to their muscles. If they’re playing in warmer weather, their bodies are also fighting the heat.

The cooling helmet, which can reach four degrees Celsius, cools the body down, similar to the centuries-old concept of putting an ice on any injury or wound.

“We don’t claim that this is an original ideal; however, the device itself does require some technological advances,” Wang said.

The helmet, which straps onto a person’s head and neck, is intended to drop a person’s core body temperature back to the normal thermic state of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We get to the very superficial parts of the brain,” Jackson said. “It’s not a deep, deep cooling like you see in (the movie) “Lost in Space” or something, (in which a person reaches a) hypothermic state, and you wake up 20 years from now, and you’d still be the same age.”

If only one side of a person’s head or brain is affected by an injury, Jackson said the person should still wear the cooling helmet.

“Our concept was, if we cool a normal healthy brain, we could show that it doesn’t have an affect on heart rate blood pressure,” Jackson said. “So if you hurt one side and we try to take care for that side with the cooling, the other facets aren’t affected.”

Jackson said the cooling helmet is intended to aid concussed athletes, but knowing when a player is concussed is a challenge of its own.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention a concussion is a “type of traumatic brain injury — or TBI — caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth.”

Concussions vary from mild — a person bumping their head into a cabinet and seeing stars, for example — to severe, which results in a blackout.

“Concussion doesn’t mean you blackout. It means it’s a transient change in brain function,” said Jackson, who said he had three or four in his career, when teams used smelling salts if people got their “bell rung.”

By NCAA rule, if an athlete shows signs of a concussion, they are not allowed to return to the game. The athlete must undergo several concussions tests on the sidelines, including answering basic questions such as what the date or year is.

Athletes are also required to undergo a blood test and go through a voice-analyzing test via an iPhone app. The app selects words for athletes to say out loud, and then identifies whether there is a change in the player’s speech. Studies show that head injuries could lead to a change in speech, especially when sounding out vowels.

In 2010, the NCAA surveyed 20,000 student-athletes from 600 NCAA schools, asking whether they had — or “believed to have had” — a concussion during their college career. The findings were released in a 2014 NCAA report, which reported 86.9 percent of female student-athletes and 80.6 percent of male student-athletes did not receive a concussion while in college.

One year after the NCAA survey, the Big Ten and Ivy League announced a partnership with the Big Ten Committee on Institutional Cooperation, CIC, to sponsor cross-institutional research on head injuries in sport.

Four years later in 2014, the NCAA announced a three-year $30 million partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense to change safety behaviors in college sports and the military.

The department plans to assess 370,000 student-athletes and reassess them if they receive concussions. It also required each school to have its own concussion management plan.

Even then, some people don’t show signs of a concussion or develop symptoms until hours, days or even weeks later.

“(A concussion) can a create hetergeneious population with many different kinds of injuries that affect many different parts of the brain, Rubin said. “The goal with the study is to have a more precise and characterization of the injury and specific treatment.”

Jackson said though the research is in its early stages, all athletes should wear the cooling helmet device before, during and after games to prevent letting concussions go untreated.

“Instead of just treating the people who have concussions, what about the group who might have concussions but don’t show any signs of it?” Jackson said. “Let’s just treat everybody the same.”

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