UNC, West Point team up for concussion research with $400,000 grant

A team of professors and researchers at UNC and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point will use a $400,000 award to develop an online platform to change concussion disclosure norms among military personnel and college athletes.

The project, Concussion Disclosure Behaviors Attitudes Norms and Knowledge Study, is one of eight winners of the annual Mind Matters Challenge. The challenge, sponsored by the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense, awards grants to research projects that address cultural change around concussions.

Johna Register-Mihalik, co-principal investigator of the study and UNC exercise and sport science professor, said there are many connections between military personnel and college athletes.

“Both of these groups are typically physically fit populations and have high expectations from their superiors as well as society,” she said. “It seemed like a natural fit to understand what differences and what synergies we might be able to find between those two groups to help develop an educational tool that will be effective in both of those settings."

Register-Mihalik said the first phase of the project involves surveying the two populations in order to collect data, regardless of whether they have had a concussion before.

“The first phase is to gather information so we can build the online tool,” she said. “We’re understanding the culture, what athletes and military personnel think about concussions, and why they do or don’t disclose concussions.”

Stephen Marshall, co-principal investigator and epidemiology professor, said this formative research will be publicized, in addition to guiding the creation of the platform.

“We’ll do the usual sorts of things that professors do like publish journal articles and give lectures with snappy titles,” he said.

The next phase, Register-Mihalik said, is to build the online tool.

“We will use this information to develop an educational platform with immersive vignettes, meaning that it would be a story that you partake in, almost like a game where you would see things happening and then respond,” she said.

Marshall said the scenarios will be tailored to the participant, depending on whether they are an athlete or a military cadet.

“One of the things we might have would be a fellow cadet who has a concussion but doesn’t recognize it and so in that situation, it’s looking out for someone in your squad who clearly has a brain injury and is probably not performing up to standard and endangering the entire squad,” he said. “It’s like a virtual reality roleplay game.”

Register-Mihalik said the last phase of the study will use the platform results to improve the tool.

“At the end of the project, we will have a refined educational tool that will have parts that better fit military insulation and other parts that better fit NCAA athletes,” she said.

Heidi Hennink-Kaminski, a research team member and professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, said her role is to translate the formative research into a platform that reflects the target audience.

“We want the educational tool to have the perspective of the target audiences in place because that will make it more engaging and help bring about social norm change,” she said.

The partnership with West Point, Hennink-Kaminski said, provides a broader target audience.

“By doing research at West Point and UNC, we get a more diverse group of students who are emerging as adults," she said. “Our goal is to educate student-athletes at this point in their lives when they are emerging as adults and starting to form their own points of view.”

Hennink-Kaminski said the partnership is conducive to stronger research.

“It’s kind of cool to be doing interdisciplinary research here and that’s one thing that UNC is really known for,” she said. “It’s really great to be able to combine people from different areas who all bring specializations to the table.”

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