Concussions and other head injuries have gained more attention and emphasis in recent years in college and professional football. To help address these problems, The University of Mississippi recently launched a new Ph.D. program with a neuroscience component, the university announced on Oct. 30.
One of only three programs of its kind in the nation, the UM curriculum is designed to train professionals to help those with traumatic brain injuries recover better. The new special education doctoral program trains educators to use therapies that incorporate mathematics, language and other subjects to speed and improve recovery.
The new special education Ph.D. has multiple components: one helps students learn how the brain works, while other sections of the curriculum deal with literacy, diversity and behaviors. Neurosciences are studied in all areas of the new program.
"We're going to be able to really draw a lot of students nationally because of the Ph.D. with the neuroscience component," said Roy J. Thurston, UM assistant professor of special education. "Some other universities have master's degrees in neuroscience, but the only other doctorates I know of are at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Harvard University."
Chancellor Dan Jones, who is a medical doctor, has been a leader in the movement to understand and prevent concussions in sports. In 2012, he was appointed to chair a Southeastern Conference working group on concussions. He said he is happy that the university's faculty is engaged in addressing the issue through the new program.
"I am pleased that our faculty are providing leadership in the field of education, especially in the area of educating those with traumatic brain injury," Jones said. "This is another great example of University of Mississippi faculty seeking opportunities to transform lives through education and service."
Thurston, who set up the UM Ph. D. program, did his research is in cognitive rehabilitation of those with traumatic brain injuries and also in neuroscience applications to education. The therapies taught in the program could be particularly useful as it relates to college and professional football.
"When people pursue this degree, they can go work not just in K-12 education systems; they can work in rehabilitation and also hospital situations," Thurston said. "Because there are so many brain injuries now and the survival rate is huge compared to what it used to be, they really need cognitive rehabilitation. We look at how we're going to get these people back to school, back to competitive employment, get their lives back together."
The therapies taught in the program could be particularly useful as more emphasis has been placed in recent years on head injuries in college and professional football. Officials have pushed to limit the number of injuries through better helmet technology and rules changes designed to make the game safer. But injuries still occur, and advancements in figuring out how to treat them continue.
The SEC working group on concussions, which Jones chaired, announced an update in May, having reviewed the Concussion Management plans of all SEC member institutions and conducted an extensive review of studies, practices, and literature on concussions. The Group remains in existence and will continue to review research, identify best practices and standards of care, disseminate information to SEC member institutions and develop educational strategies.
"There is much work to be done, and while the Conference has a role to play, prevention and treatment of concussion injuries is a national concern that needs and deserves a coordinated national effort," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive stated. "For this reason, the Presidents and Chancellors will make a formal request that the NCAA take the lead in organizing and spearheading a national research effort and examining possible revisions to playing rules in football and other sports.
"The Group's objective was and is to help member institutions in their respective efforts to safeguard the health and welfare of student athletes. The Group gathered information about concussions, identifying best practices and standards of care, as well as provided information about such practices and standards to team physicians, trainers, athletic directors, and coaches of SEC member institutions.
The Ole Miss football team currently uses the IMPACT test, which is part of the testing used when an athlete shows any symptoms or signs of a concussion, such as linebacker Serderius Bryant who suffered a concussion against Texas A&M earlier this season.
"Every single athlete that comes in here, as part of the pre-participation physical exam, everybody has baseline screening for cognitive and motor skills," said Shannon Singletary, Senior Associate A.D. for Health and Sports Performance.
"We do balance testing. And we do cognitive testing, both on and off the computer. They do IMPACT testing, which is on a computer, and it tests hand-eye coordination, cerebral input and memory, among other things.
"On the front end, we give all our athletes an education sheet with the symptoms of concussions. We also post them in their locker rooms. If you have any of these, you must report these symptoms to the athletic trainer. Once those symptoms are reported, then we can go back and test them again on those tests and compare them to their baselines. No athletes who have concussion symptoms during a game are allowed to go back into the game until we feel 100 percent that those symptoms have been resolved, and there has been a period of healing."