A career-spanning research agenda launched at the Curry School has propelled Kevin Guskiewicz to the national stage and garnered him a coveted MacArthur genius grant.
Guskiewicz (Ph.D. ’95), a researcher and athletic trainer, has made major advances in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sports-related concussions. Through a combination of laboratory and on-the-field research, Guskiewicz has played an important role in raising awareness about the prevalence and dangers of sports-related brain injuries in both professional and youth athletics.
He was among the first to identify the long-term effects of multiple concussions, including cognitive impairment and depression in later life, through large-scale epidemiological studies of retired professional football players.
“My U.Va. experience in Kinesiology and the Curry School set me on a great path,” Guskiewicz says. “When I was researching doctoral programs in 1992, U.Va. clearly had the premier program in Sports Medicine, and today still ranks among the very best.”
David H. Perrin, who from 1986 to 2001 directed the Curry School’s graduate program in athletic training and sports medicine says Kevin was an outstanding doctoral student. “He was focused, inquisitive, and highly motivated. His dissertation, ‘Effect of Mild Head Injury on Postural Stability,’ set the stage for a research agenda that has transformed the way we think about concussion in sports across all levels of participation,” says Perrin, who is now provost and executive vice chancellor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Guskiewicz says that while at Curry Dave Perrin and Joe Gieck kept him focused on the topic of concussion, which at that time was a novel area of research. He was trying to develop a balance assessment tool that could objectively measure balance deficits following concussion. “In 1993, Dave Perrin returned from a concussion summit in Dallas, and I can recall him telling me, ‘You could be onto something really important here. It may take some time but let’s stay the course.’”
His dissertation committee, which included Perrin, Gieck, Bruce Gansneder, Ethan Saliba, and U.Va. neuropsychologist Jeff Barth, was like a dream team, he says. “I couldn’t let them down. I would not trade my U.Va. experience for anything, and I am proud to consider these individuals lifelong mentors, as well as colleagues.”
In this and subsequent research, Guskiewicz demonstrated that postural control, or balance, serves especially well as an objective measure in the evaluation of concussive episodes. His portable and cost-effective Balance Error Scoring System is now widely used by athletic trainers at colleges and secondary schools to diagnose and manage injury more accurately and rapidly.
Guskiewicz is currently Kenan Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina, where he is also founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center and research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.
His recent work focuses on the cumulative effects of repetitive, sub-threshold brain impacts. Using accelerometers embedded in the helmets of college football and youth hockey players, he and colleagues are investigating the relationship between magnitude and number of head impacts and clinical symptoms of concussion. Taking this research a step further, he is working directly with collegiate football players and coaches to identify dangerous hits in real time and to correct improper tackling techniques associated with sustaining concussions.
“It’s really taking the data and translating it to the sidelines,” he says. “We can take a player and say, ‘Listen, on those last two or three plays you were leading with your head. You’re predisposing yourself to an injury.’”
Thinking beyond the sports field, Guskiewicz and his team have begun to consider other applications of their work. ““I think some of the return-to-play protocols that we have developed through our work with athletes could be translated to the battlefield and thinking about how we return a soldier to the battle lines,” he says.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced its list of 22 new MacArthur Fellows for 2011 on September 20. The fellowships are awarded to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Guskiewicz will receive $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years.
by Lynn Bell
Photos by Greg Murray