The following article is the third in a three-part Centrepiece series exploring “the concussion issue,” including ongoing research at Centre College and the conservative and proactive approaches taken by Centre Athletics.
What’s the best route to becoming a successful Kentucky neuroscientist? A horse, of course!
At one time, Associate Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience KatieAnn Skogsberg trained elite show horses and coached their riders in her home state of Idaho.
Until a session on one horse (perhaps prophetically named “Snort”) led to a spinning, furious fall that resulted in a concussion so serious it erased six months of her memory.
Even stranger, she says: “I don’t think I even hit my head. The centrifugal force was enough to cause the damage. And I never lost consciousness.”
That one must hit one’s head or black out in order to be considered concussed are two dangerous myths about these common head injuries that can occur in a linebacker—or just the backyard. A victim can be fully awake and responsive but still have symptoms.
Skogsberg believes she probably suffered many concussions over the years. But the psychological effects from that serious concussion concerned her the most.
“I was known as a trainer who could reach the most difficult of animals. Now I was training with skepticism, with an ‘I’m going to get you before you get me’ mentality. I knew I needed a change.”
So in her early 30s, she returned to Boise State, in large part to understand what had happened to her. She already had a B.A. in theater arts and “loved Shakespeare,” crediting her stage background for strong memorization skills and being fascinated with visual illusions and light.
She went on to earn a B.S. in psychology, then earned a master’s and Ph.D. in visual attention and processing at Northwestern, where she taught psychology before coming to Centre.
“I wanted a liberal arts, teaching school,” she says.
Not to mention another important factor: Her fiancé lived in the area.
Now, along with her Centre students, Skogsberg uses tools such as electroencephalography (EEG) to conduct behavioral and biofeedback training for improving attention and also to research visual attention abilities—for example, working on developing an EEG-based test for concussions’ effects on visual attention. [VIDEO]
In addition, they conduct surveys to understand what motivates athletes to return to play after sustaining a concussion. The results have been surprising. Once enlightened to the deep damage one or more concussions can cause, athletes should be more likely to self-report symptoms to their coaches.
However, surveys of both Division I and Division III athletes from all varsity sports, along with nonathletes, showed that as the intensity of the context of the game changes from preseason practice to league championship, the athletes’ predicted willingness to report symptoms decreases. Additionally, their predicted willingness to return to play while experiencing the symptoms increases.
“The take-home is that it’s the context that matters,” says Skogsberg. “Concussion education is important, but coaches need to focus on other factors as to why players want to go back out. While all concussions should be taken seriously, your second and third can have compounding negative effects, leading to cognitive deficits and even death.”
Skogsberg and her team have a paper they plan to submit for publication. Meanwhile, her students have given several presentations on their findings.
“One of the most rewarding things in research is helping students learn the skills, then turning them loose and letting them show they can do it on their own—just like when I trained horses and riders,” she says.
Skogsberg runs and skis now instead of riding. But she hasn’t left horses entirely behind. She will use her sabbatical to conduct a similar concussion survey on equestrian athletes.
“I hope this work will lead to new ways of framing the conversation about concussions, especially when it comes to prevention of repeated concussions and smart decisions about when it is okay to return to play,” she says.
by Laura Boswell ’94
August 15, 2016
Laura Boswell ’94 is a writer and marketing manager in Arlington, Va.