Concussion Research and Rugby

“Rugby can be a pretty rough sport,” says Dr. Jorge Serrador, Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology & Neuroscience at NJMS. He ought to know. Serrador, who began playing rugby in college, “retired” from the sport in 2002, during his post-doc at Harvard Medical School, but not before he suffered any number of bumps and scrapes, including a head injury that resulted in “a fracture of the bone around my eye.”

Today, Serrador directs the Integrative Human Physiology Laboratory at NJMS, where, among many interests, he and his team study concussions and the possibility of long-term negative effects.
“One of the biggest challenges with studying concussions,” he says, “is that at the moment we don’t have an objective diagnostic criteria. We base our diagnosis on whether or not the patient has concussion symptoms.” Things like confusion, dizziness, and ringing in the ears. “Of the individuals who get a head hit and show concussion symptoms--eighty percent of them are going to be fine within a few days. But the other twenty percent are going to continue to have symptoms that can last from ten days to several months, even up to a year. Right now, we have nothing that tells us who’s going to be in that twenty percent, or why they’ll have these continued symptoms.”

Another difficulty, he adds, is the lack of subjects. That’s where the Can-Am Rugby Tournament comes in. Over one weekend each summer, roughly a thousand rugby players from Canada and America converge on Saranac Lake, NY. For the past five years, Serrador and his team have attended the tournament and set up their tent filled with lab equipment.

“Thank god, we don’t get a lot of concussions per game,” Serrador says, “but that means if you’re trying to get enough individuals to study, it’s difficult. Having such a large concentration of players in one place allows us a great opportunity.”

If a player gets a head hit, they’re first sent to the medical tent for evaluation. Then, if they don’t need further treatment, Serrador and his team will ask if they’re interested in participating in the concussion study. “We measure their brain blood flow and blood pressure,” he says. “We’ve found that that players who’ve had a head hit have lower brain blood flow.”

Serrador is applying for funding that would allow him to enhance the study. “We want to see if lower brain blood flow can be used as a prognostic indicator,” he says. “Is lower brain blood flow a sign that someone is in the twenty percent who are going to take a month to recover? If so, then we can start to look at whether they could be given something to help speed recovery and improve their long-term outcomes.”

To learn more about Dr. Jorge Serrador’s ongoing research, visit his faculty profile page and the Serrador lab at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.