2018 IDEA Award Winner Q&A: Sam Walton

Every year, the Curry School of Education awards grant funding to select students as part of the Curry Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEA) Competition. Funded through Curry’s Research and Development Fund, this grant helps students advance both their careers and the field of education through the development of innovative research. This article is a part of a series that explores the winning 2018 IDEA projects and their potential impact on education.

Program: Kinesiology - Sports Medicine
Project: The Physiologic and Psychological Effects of Concussion

Can you give me a brief overview of what this project is about? 

Sport concussion is a widely discussed yet not fully understood injury. We know that when harmful forces are applied to the brain, neurons and other brain cells are disrupted from performing their normal functions. When these cells do not perform as they are intended to, we see an increase in symptoms (headache, dizziness, etc.) and poor function (balance problems, slower reaction time, etc.).

The use of energy by the body to perform the processes required for sustaining human life is called metabolism. Restoring injured brain cells back to normal requires a lot of energy (hyper-metabolism), and researchers have observed changes to both the amount and type of energy consumed by the brain following a wide array of traumatic brain injuries such as concussion. Current research tells us that severe traumatic brain injury as well as severe injury elsewhere in the body (e.g. bone fractures, burns, etc.) can lead to hyper-metabolism in the whole body (not just in the brain). However, we don’t know whether or not we can measure this phenomenon in people who are suffering from concussions.

In addition to physiologic changes, emerging evidence shows that concussion can also alter mood (e.g. depression), behavior (e.g. sleep pattern), and social participation (e.g. peer-to-peer contact). Therefore, the goals of my study are:

  1. Determine if we can detect changes in metabolism in people who have recently sustained a concussion, and throughout the recovery from that concussion.
  2. Determine if observed changes in metabolism are related to the amounts of energy that concussed people eat in their normal daily diet.
  3. Assess mood, behavior and social patterns throughout recovery from concussion and determine if these coincide with energy intake or metabolism in these individuals.

Why are you passionate about this area of research?

I have been a certified athletic trainer for over 10 years. Throughout my career, I have worked with many patients who have suffered from sport concussion. A few of these athletes have had long-term changes following the injury. There is currently no widely effective treatment for concussion other than treating symptoms in each individual. The results of my study could lead to a better understanding of the underlying issues associated with concussion, as well as illuminate avenues for treatment that may help improve the quality of life in those who deal with these injuries.

Where did the idea for this particular project come from? 

Similar research in rodents and more severe types of brain injury formed the framework for this study. My advisor (Jacob Resch) and I feel strongly that these concepts need to be explored in humans suffering from concussion. We have provided oversight for this project from 2014-2017 as the pilot data was collected by master’s students in the University’s athletic training program. I have since expanded the scope of the project to answer questions related to the influences of gender, age, mood, behavior and perception of injury on the metabolism and energy intake outcomes.

How did you decide to submit a proposal to the Curry IDEA competition? 

Friends and colleagues in my program had been awarded funds through the Curry IDEA competition previously and they (along with my advisor) encouraged me to apply. My project is innovative in the world of sports medicine, and so I felt that it embodied the aims of the Curry IDEA award.

What other people and organizations will be involved? 

My project is benefitting from the input of experts in multiple disciplines here at UVA:

  • My academic and research advisors, Jay Hertel and Jacob Resch, are prolific sports medicine researchers and are co-directors of the Exercise and Sport Injury Laboratory (EaSIL).
  • Steven Malin is a co-director of the Applied Metabolism and Physiology Laboratory (AMP) and has a joint appointment with the Division of Endocrinology & Metabolism in the School of Medicine. Sibylle Kranz directs the Diet and Nutrition Laboratory (DAN) and is known for her work in nutritional epidemiology. They are both renowned for their expertise in nutrition and metabolism.
  • Donna Broshek is a full professor in the Division of Neuropsychology within the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences in the School of Medicine and is the past president of the Sports Neuropsychology Society. She has published seminal works regarding gender differences, mood and behavior in student-athletes following concussion.

Additionally, the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Trainers’ Association has provided some financial support for this study.

What goals do you have for this project?

This project will give insight into some of the underlying processes affected by concussion, as well as the human behavior and attitude response to the injury. While this project won’t directly influence care for concussed patients, it is a necessary first step into investigating dietary intervention as a potential way to help patients recover. This project will illuminate pathways to help improve outcomes for those who suffer from concussion and therefore will also be used to leverage future funding after I have completed my degree.

How will the idea grant help you achieve those goals?

The IDEA grant is what makes my study possible. While we had previously obtained some financial support, it was not enough to cover the cost of supplies and participant compensation. The IDEA grant has given me the ability to supply the materials necessary to perform the study and to later disseminate the research findings at national-level conferences and research symposia.