Penn State Hershey neurosurgeon serving on NFL committee

Hershey, Pa. — While most football fans are fixated on the upcoming Super Bowl, a neurosurgeon from Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center is looking further down the road to making the sport safer for professional and amateur players alike.

Robert E. Harbaugh, director of the Penn State Hershey Neuroscience Institute, is among a select group of neurological experts from across the country chosen by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to serve on the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee. He also chairs a subcommittee that’s developing a database to explore a potential connection between severe head injuries suffered by players and cognitive decline experienced by some of them later in life.

“We want to study retired NFL players to get a better idea of what kind of long-term brain and spine problems they might develop,” Harbaugh said. “We plan to look at a whole range of data to see if there are modifications that can be made to equipment and playing surfaces that would reduce the risk of long-term neurological injury.” It’s his hope that such improvements would trickle down to play at the college and high school levels.

As part of its work, the broader committee is analyzing the criteria used to determine when a player who has suffered a concussion can return to the gridiron.

“Ten years ago, as soon as an athlete who suffered a concussion was symptom-free, they would be put back into the game -- maybe even the same day,” Harbaugh said. “In large part, that’s because athletes notoriously deny the symptoms of a concussion.”

But more recently, the medical community has been urging greater caution. At a 2008 conference in Zurich, Switzerland, an international panel of physicians agreed that athletes who have suffered concussions would be served best by up to a week of physical and cognitive rest followed by a gradual return to play.

Taking that approach may be harder than it sounds, mainly because a concussion is easier to define than it is to detect. A concussion is caused by a sudden rotational acceleration of the brain. “The classic example is the knockout punch that hits the side of the jaw and rotates the head,” Harbaugh said. It often results in a short-term loss of consciousness. But because the brain sustains no obvious structural damage, it can be hard to definitively tell when a concussion has occurred. Moreover, scans used to diagnose other brain injuries do not show a concussion. Even after a concussion is diagnosed, gauging recovery is an inexact science, at best.

Such factors make the work of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee an inexact science, as well. But Harbaugh hopes the database his subcommittee is developing will add some precision to the process.

“We’re just trying to gain a better understanding of all the issues so we can better inform players and make the sport safer,” Harbaugh said.

To see a video of Harbaugh discussing his role on the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, visit /video/161327/2013/02/09/video-no-title online.

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Last Updated March 21, 2011