The principals of this burgeoning medical field will positively impact
more than just athletes.
Sports neurology is benefitting from and contributing to a greater awareness of concepts such as
neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form and organize synapse connections) and
neuromodulation (delivering a targeted stimulus to alter nerve activity as a means for
restoring function or relieving neurological symptoms). These principles
have a longer history in stroke and rehabilitation as well as treatment
of mood disorders, but they are beginning to be employed in the treatment
of sports-related neurological injuries such as concussion.
In addition to treatment of neurological injury from sports, increasingly,
the field of sports neurology involves the study and understanding of
how the brain and nervous system work together to help people perform
at their best. Beyond the athletic population, this burgeoning medical
sub-specialty has helped to usher in a stronger focus on overall brain
function and performance, (not just injury, and recovery), for everybody
and every body – whether that body contains an athlete, a 9-to-5-er,
or a retiree. Sports neurology assessments, followed by interventions
employing neuromodulation and based on the concept of neuroplasticity
have wide-ranging benefits for the general population, based on lessons
we’re learning in athletes.
Athletes who play professionally or at the collegiate level comprise only
a small fraction of the population that suffers from brain injuries or
conditions, but they are popular focal points in our American culture.
Using the social capital of sports elevates our ability to study the brain
comprehensively. That means studying not only the injured brain, but also
the healthy brain and benefits of brain optimization. Studying these things
in athletes has clear ramifications for and provides the opportunity for
extrapolation and benefit among a broader population: Literally everybody;
no matter the individual age, lifestyle, or level of play.
Studying the effects of brain injury on brainwaves (as seen on
EEG testing) in athletes, for example, has contributed to our understanding of how
optimal and efficient brainwave activity can be associated with many aspects
of optimal performance – whether that performance be on an athletic
field, at work or school, or even in retirement. There are even likely
relationships between brainwave efficiency and injury risk reduction.
It’s early, but there are promising examples of how training the
brain and neuromodulation can positively affect brainwave organization,
Naturally, as interest among famous athletes in the neurological contributions
to optimal function and performance increases, so too does the general
public’s curiosity in such matters. As a result, society is becoming
more aware of the notion that our physical ability to do anything is not
merely because we have or haven’t trained our bodies to do that
thing. Instead, sports neurology has helped provide a bevy of evidence
which shows that concepts like sleep hygiene, visual acuity, balance,
the ability to focus and concentrate, and our speed of mental processing
are all significant contributors to our overall health, wellness, and
performance – throughout the course of our entire lives.
Indeed, sports neurology has the potential to impact the care and treatment
every person should receive, whether or not they are a professional athlete.
At present, many of our youth are first exposed to sports neurology by
way of a neurological examination and assessment during a preseason “baseline”
test for concussion. The concept being that if that individual has a possible,
probable, or definite concussion the baseline assessment can be repeated
for comparison purposes. Those comparisons provide useful information
regarding diagnosis and/or can assist with return to play decisions. I
would offer that the potential benefits of neurological “baselining”
go far beyond a potential usefulness in individuals who might happen to
have a suspected concussive injury during their season. We should be “baselining”
(performing neurological assessments and educating on neurological health)
and routinely repeating these assessments on a yearly basis in athletes
and non-athletes alike. With this approach, sports neurology affords opportunities
to screen for and catch evidence of neurological disorders early and provide
early intervention – whether or not an individual suffered a concussion.
It provides an opportunity to recognize evidence of gradual/subtle worsening
of neurological function over time. And it provides an opportunity to
train the brain when there are areas of poorer performance – improving
and optimizing things like vision, balance, focus, concentration, speed
of mental processing, reaction times and other contributors to performance.
Again, individuals may not have had an injury, and they may not have a
neurological diagnosis. But the screening and yearly assessments can identify
individuals whose performance and function can be significantly improved
with training. And the benefits are not limited to athletic pursuits.
There are benefits to academic and professional performance as well. Perhaps
most importantly, this kind of process affords the opportunity to reinforce
the importance of neurological health across the lifespan. Our brains
make us who we are. Neurological health and maintaining that health at
optimal levels is, perhaps, the most important thing one can do for successful
life, livelihood, and functional longevity.
It is an exciting time to be a sports neurologist. I remember no more than
a decade or so ago when very few people outside of the research and academic
world knew what sports neurology was. The “fandemonium” of
sports in America has helped us change that, for the better. I genuinely
believe that this increase in knowledge is to the benefit of every human
– for successful aging and overall wellness across their entire lifespan.