How Minnesota Is Helping to Solve the Concussion Epidemic Through Research and Innovation

How Minnesota Is Helping to Solve the Concussion Epidemic Through Research and Innovation
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While Minneapolis is preparing to host Super Bowl 2018 in just a few short weeks, Twin Cities’ researchers are coming together to present their innovations to the public in an array of events.

<p>Dr. Uzma Samadani, MD, PhD at HCMC’s Brain Injury Research Lab</p>

Dr. Uzma Samadani, MD, PhD at HCMC’s Brain Injury Research Lab

submitted photo

It seems fitting that as Minnesota gears up to host the biggest game in football, it would highlight some of the most advanced thinking and innovations around concussions. What makes the Twin Cities so robust is a three-fold combination of 1) high-quality academics, 2) financial support and funding for research, and 3) a large med-tech community.

With football being at the center of attention in the concussion debate, it only seems appropriate that Minnesota would take this opportunity to shed light on all of the groundbreaking work being done in the state.

I had the pleasure of interviewing several of the acclaimed innovators who will be featured during the week leading up to Super Bowl 2018. These series of events around the Twin Cities are open to the public (most are free). They are designed to give us a glimpse into the amazing work geared toward the advancement of concussion prevention and treatment that’s occurring right in our own backyard.

Whether you’re a football fan or not, you will be enlightened by this lineup of incredibly smart and talented Minnesotans.


This event is not about undermining the game of football, or any other contact sport, for that matter. Instead, it’s designed to tackle key issues facing players, teams, leagues, doctors and lawyers regarding head injuries and brain trauma. Leading experts share perspectives on medical advances in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), related legal and ethical issues, youth athletics and parental concerns, player representation, and the sports fan’s appetite for football in light of concussions.

This event is designed to showcase the breadth of innovation across the Startup Capital of the North, including the rapidly growing sports-tech community. Hear from the founders of an all-star lineup of MN Cup winners over the past decade, followed by an hour of demonstrations given by emerging local sports and student startups.

This event is near and dear to me. I had lobbied with the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance during the Legislative session at the State Capitol every Tuesday this past year. We were part of a grassroots advocacy effort led by Get Up Stand Up To Cure Paralysis (GUSU). We were successful in our efforts to get the Spinal Cord and TBI research grant funded with $6 million for the next biennium (two years). “This was a major grassroots victory for spinal cord and brain injury advocates, and clearly demonstrates what is possible when funding is made a priority in the minds of state legislators,” commented Jeff Nachbar, Public Policy Director of the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance.

During this half-day symposium moderated by Dr. Uzma Samadani, MD, PhD, and Walter Low, PhD, participants will hear from researchers whose innovative projects have been funded by this grant, as well as the progress of their projects.

Moderated by KARE 11’s Tim McNiff, Francis Shen from the Neuorlaw Lab, and Troy Pearson, director of the Timberwolves and Lynx Basketball Academy. The Player's Health Summit is an event focused on gathering professional athletes, sports medicine professionals, leaders in sports administration, risk management professionals, and coaches, to explore best practices of health and safety in youth sports today and in the future.

February 2 SportCon

Explore the many ways in which data-driven decision making continues to play a major role in sports, with a stellar lineup of speakers from academia, professional teams and the tech industry. In addition to individual technical and business-oriented talks, the conference will feature panels on data in fantasy sports, sports tech, and collegiate analytics, and more, plus a “Startup Showcase” session, in which up to ten promising sports-tech startups will each do a six-minute pitch. This free event is perfect for sports fans, as well as analytics enthusiasts from any field.


Located in Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), which is the largest level one trauma center in the state of Minnesota and one of the busiest in the United States, the lab is led by Dr. Uzma Samadani, MD PhD, neurosurgeon and brain injury researcher. She serves as the Rockswold Kaplan Endowed Chair for Traumatic Brain Injury at HCMC and as an Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota. She is also an attending neurosurgeon at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Medical Center.

The Brain Injury Research Lab is using innovative technology that measures eye movement to better detect and classify concussions and other brain injuries that are invisible to radiological scans such as CTs and MRIs. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the assessment of brain function in real time.

Samadani said, “The reality is that one person could have multiple symptoms from a single concussion, while another person has no symptoms even after multiple concussions. These things are so complicated—and not as straight forward as we would like to believe. We believe that eye tracking will be a very important component in classifying, treating, and preventing brain injury.”

In addition to eye tracking, the research lab is also working with the team at Iron Neck to determine the role that neck strength plays in preventing concussions, particularly in women. “For women it is definitely more of a problem. We have longer, thinner necks and are like a bobblehead. I don’t think we realize how vulnerable we are. I can see how any impact to the body could potentially create more of a jostle in women than men because they don’t have the same core strength in the neck,” Samdani stated.

The lab is also working on several other projects, including saliva testing, Vagus Nerve stimulation, blast injuries, and the Minnesota Healthy Brain Initiative.

(read my previous Huff Post piece on Dr. Samadani HERE & Listen to my podcast with Iron Neck HERE)

Led by Dr. Francis Shen at the University of Minnesota, the Neurolaw Lab is translating advances in brain science into better law and policy.

In the emerging field of neuroscience and law, the basic idea is that there are laws governing human brain (ex: auto accidents), and the more that is understood about how the human brain works, a better job can be done to create policies and laws to protect our brains. Shen said, “The big challenge is trying to determine what, if anything, in science advances, but not enough to give you a clear answer. Clinicians have these same challenges; however, in law judges have to decide whether to admit evidence into a trial, or how much money to award in damages.”

According to Dr. Shen, “There is a great interest in continuing to promote concussion awareness and education, but at the same time there is an awareness that providing information simply isn’t enough. Athletes, coaches, and parents are learning more but the evidence isn’t clear enough as to whether we are seeing enough changes in practice. We need more data and more objective methods for defining and detecting concussions.” He added, “We need better measures and data of concussions, and not just wait until symptoms show up.”

Shen also noted that currently all grades K-12 have a “return to play” law, yet less than half the athletes and parents know about the law, which has existed since 2012.

Steve Washburn, CEO and co-founder and David Sigel, Chief Marketing Officer. Developed over 6 years ago in collaboration with neurosurgeons and engineers at the Cleveland Clinic and then established in Minneapolis in 2015, Prevent Biometrics’ patented technology is the first and only real-time concussion-impact monitoring technology.

Embedded in a mouth guard and paired with a mobile app, Prevent Biometrics’ head-impact monitor continuously monitors the athlete, and records every head impact received. If an impact exceeds a preset threshold, a red LED light immediately illuminates on the mouth guard and an alert is sent to personnel on the sidelines through the mobile app. This app not only shows the athlete’s impact history, but also the force, location, and direction of the impacts; thus collecting crucial data for future research.

With a plus or minus five margin of error, it is the only product to meet the NFL’s validation standard for head impact. Sigel said, “Helmet systems tend to be very inaccurate, as the helmet can move independently of the head. A mouthguard is held rightly in place by your teeth; when your teeth/jaw move, your head also moves.”

Sigel also stated that they are not preventing concussions; they are trying to find undetected concussions. Over fifty percent of concussions go undetected, undiagnosed and untreated, which can lead to severe neurological problems. Their device allow coaches, trainers, and sideline personnel to make a more accurate, data-informed decision about whether the athlete needs to be assessed for concussion.

Founder Tyrre Burks knows first-hand the reality of sports injuries. Having played sports throughout his childhood, and several years on the Canadian Football League, led him to develop a risk-management application to help sports organizations track their player’s injuries and health, and to remain compliant with the state’s safety protocols.

Launched in July of 2016, Burks’ application already has over 90,000 users, including coaches, parents, administrators, athletic trainers, as well as the athlete. When Burks began research looking into sports organizations, he found that most were operating with safety guidelines that were ten or more years outdated. He found that the information wasn’t being communicated properly, and that there was no way to monitor the new guidelines because no one was policing it.

He also found that in 90% of the local club-level sports, no athletic trainer is at the practice. With parents paying thousands of dollars for their child to play in a club, priority should be to have an athletic trainer at the game.

Burks said, “The recreation program is now seeing a huge decline in numbers because of the club market. As a parent, you need to be concerned about the safety of your child, not how fancy the jersey are.”

Founded by football parents, Jeremy and Brigid Ling, TackleBar has launched a safer approach to football that preserves the traditions and fundamentals of the game, while reducing the risk of concussions and other injuries associated with tackling. Their mission is to dramatically reduce both head injuries and all other injuries related to tackling, while at the same time preserving the spirit of the game.

Wearing traditional helmet, shoulder pads, and a patented Tacklebar harness around their torso, the ball carrier is downed by tearing off one of the bars. The design teaches proper defensive fundamentals as the bar location requires the defense to play with their head up and eyes on the ball carrier at all times.

TackleBar’s CEO, Tim Healy, said, “We have been around football our whole lives, and some of the greatest life lessons we’ve learned and relationships we’ve built have stemmed from this game. This is an innovative change to the game at a time when we need to make the game safer and more appealing to both youth and parents.”

(Listen to my podcast with Tim Healy HERE)

MinneAnalytics is a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving Minnesota’s data science and analytics community. They are the largest regional community and events organization in the U.S.

They facilitate the sharing of knowledge and ideas among analytics professionals across business, technology and decision science through our industry-specific events and conferences. In addition, they host student analytics challenges, analytics leader forums, and provide student scholarships. MinneAnalytics’ events are free to attend due to the gracious help of sponsors.

“We expect at least 1,000 participants to attend SportCon based on the huge success of last year’s event,” said Dan Atkins, cofounder and executive director of MinneAnalytics. “It drew a wide array of experts, analysts, and thought leaders from all parts of the sports world—and that included management personnel from every one of our Minnesota professional sports teams.”

Their community has grown to more than 11,500 members. This highly educated and well-placed mix includes professionals with job titles ranging from CEO to Quantitative Analyst. The variety of organizations ranges from the Fortune 500, to Startups, Academia, and the curious.

Ben Utecht is best known for his role as Super Bowl champion tight end for the Indianapolis Colts, playing alongside quarterback Peyton Manning. In addition to his football career, he is also a gifted musician, author, motivational speaker, and loving husband and dedicated father to four beautiful girls.

Utecht told me that at its core, his book is a memoir, an opportunity for him to chronicle his football story, as well as the story of meeting his wife and the births of his daughters—so he has a way to tell his daughters about it, in case one day he no longer remembers any of it.

“I am not a bitter man, I love football. I want to see it done the right way, at all levels. I want to tell a story that makes people consider, for the first time maybe, how critical their mind is to their identity. If that shifts as a culture, that will have a great impact on the brain health of athletes,” said Utecht.

His message to parents is simple:

1. Educate yourself fully, understand what a concussion injury and its symptoms are, and what to do if it happens to your child.

2. If you want your children to play sports, build a relationship with a neurologist and get a baseline assessment of your child.

3. Understand that between the ages of 2-12 is when your child’s brain is going through the most growth and developmental changes. Don’t enter your child into sports until after age 12.

Utecht hopes that sharing his story will help spread a message on the importance of our memory and brain health. Speaking and giving leadership programs has become his passion, saying, “Speaking is about influencing just one. It’s not about how many people you’re in front of, it’s the impact your words can have, even if it’s just one person—because that one person could turn your message into something for millions. You never know when you’re going to be the miracle for somebody.”

(Listen to my recent podcast with Ben HERE & Read my Huff Post piece on Ben HERE)

Dr. Jeremy Schmoe at Minnesota Functional Neurology DC (MFNC) is paving the way in Minnesota with his progressive approach to concussion recovery. His clinic is staffed with a team of caring and dedicated practitioners integrating neuroscience clinically.

Dr. Schmoe has developed a weeklong intensive program in which he and his team see a patient for three one-hour rehab sessions per day for a five-day period. He has found that this approach has decreased symptom severity in chronic post concussion patients. He has patients travel from all across the country to work with him.

MFNC is equipped with cutting-edge diagnostic tools and rehabilitation equipment including: Ocular-Motor Graphing Software, Dynavision D2, Platform Posture Analysis, Video Gait Analysis, Clear Edge Brain Health Baseline, Low Level Laser Therapy, ARPwave Neuro-Therapy, Non-Invasive Nerve Stimulation, Chiropractic Manual Therapy, Functional Blood Chemistry Analysis and Functional Neuro-Orthopedic Rehabilitation.

“I see patients who have been told there is no hope for recovery. For me, that is just not good enough. If there is any ability to build plasticity and change the brain, I am going to find it and attempt to make improvements. I never give up on patients, and I enjoy being the provider who offers them hope. I have seen some amazing things happen in our clinic, and to many people, they seem like miracles. It is common for us to see these improvements when the brain is given the appropriate stimulation and environment to heal. There's nothing better than hearing that we helped change a patient's life--or got him or her back doing the activities they love to do,” said Dr. Schmoe.

(watch my video interview with Dr. Schmoe HERE)

Full disclosure: Minnesota Functional Neurology DC is a sponsor my podcast series and my Brain Health Academy. All views and opinions are expressly my own.

Read more by Amy Zellmer on Huff Post:

Amy Zellmer is an award-winning author, keynote speaker, and advocate of traumatic brain injury (TBI). She is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, and has created a private Facebook group for survivors and also produces a podcast series. She sits on the Brain Injury Advisory Council (BIAC) through the Brain Injury Association of America and is involved locally with the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance. She travels the country with her Yorkie, Pixxie, to help raise awareness about this silent and invisible injury that affects over 2.8 million Americans each year. She also hosts the Brain Health Online Summit, an online educational resource for survivors, caregivers, and healthcare professionals.

In November, 2015 she released her first book, “Life With a Traumatic Brain Injury: Finding the Road Back to Normal” which received a silver award at the Midwest Book Awards in May, 2016. Her second book, “Embracing the Journey: Moving Forward After Brain Injury” is currently on Kickstarter and due out in March. For more information:

Watch TBI TV on Amy’s YouTube channel:

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