[Name]: Derek Monroe
[Mentor]: James Hicks, Steven Small, Julian Thayer
Project Title: Neurological Consequences of Repeated Head Impacts in Collegiate Athletes
I am a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Neurology working on a research collaboration between the School of Medicine & School of Biological Sciences to monitor brain health in UCI athletes.
It is generally believed that behaviors that are good for the heart are also good for the brain. Taken together, a model of neurovisceral integration and theory of cross-stressor adaptation suggest that exercise-induced adaptations in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that contribute to cardiovascular health may also promote healthy brain function. On the other hand, exercise performed in the context of competitive team sports carries a risk of brain injury, and athletes diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury from a sport related concussion exhibit autonomic dysfunction and disrupted cardiac control. Even mild, asymptomatic head impacts are capable of deforming the brain, and a growing body of evidence suggests that chronic exposure to these impacts can impair brain function, potentially mitigating the benefits of exercise training and increasing the risk for neurological dysfunction later in life. There is a dire and immediate need for effective, physiologically-grounded protocols that can be used to monitor athlete brain health. To address this need I am using multimodal imaging techniques (EEG, fMRI, EKG) and a network neuroscience approach to study the central dynamics underlying cardiac autonomic regulation in athletes sustaining repeated, asymptomatic (i.e., non-concussive) head impacts and trained, non-athlete controls.
To date, we have demonstrated i) a pattern of head impact exposure in water polo that appears to be consistent between men and women and across levels of competition, ii) a relationship between cumulative exposure sustained over a season, cognitive function, and brain functional connectivity, and iii) that padded headgear may be an effective way to mitigate these effects. As we actively expand the scope of our project, I am exploring the use of finite element modeling and artificial neural networks to clarify the effects of sport-related head impact exposure on brain-heart communication.