Professor researches sports-induced concussion injuries

Professor of Psychology and Chair of Neuroscience Noah Sandstrom conducts research on the effects of concussions. --Nathaniel Boley/Photo Editor
Professor of Psychology and Chair of Neuroscience Noah Sandstrom conducts research on the effects of concussions. –Nathaniel Boley/Photo Editor

“Sports are great for many reasons, including social and health reasons. But sports also come with the risk of injuries,” Professor of Psychology and Chair of Neuroscience Noah Sandstrom said. As far back as he can remember, Sandstrom has been interested in athletics. “I grew up playing sports. Watching people better than [me] play sports on TV. I love sports,” Sandstrom said. Sandstrom is eager to stress that he is pro-sports, unlike some contemporary concussion researchers who have spoken out against high-impact sports precisely because of their potential to cause long-lasting harm to the brain. In general, Sandstrom says he and fellow researchers are not against athletics but against “irresponsibly ignoring the risks that accompany those sports.”

At a school like the College where athletics abound, such a position on sports seems strategic. But just a glance at the energetic professor would convince anyone of his independent love of sports – he looks like a guy who cares about fitness. “My interest in sports kind of collided with my long-time interest in understanding the brain,” he said. “And that’s really how I got into concussion research. I wanted to understand the effects of closed head injuries on the brain and on behavior.”

In practice, Sandstrom’s concussion research involves administering controlled impacts to mice in a manner that mimics the types of impacts that might be experienced in a sports competition or for that matter, an automobile accident. Sandstrom’s lab then explores the behavioral and neuroanatomical consequences of these types of injuries. He made a point of stressing that he and his lab assistants abide by strict guidelines regulating animal research. “Basically, our goal is to use a clinically-meaningful injury model,” Sandstrom said. “These are non-fatal impacts and in fact, typically result in no obvious behavioral changes. It’s actually a quite innocuous ding, at least on the surface.”

Unfortunately, it is exactly the fact that concussions are so hard to notice that make them so easily overlooked. They’re not injuries that are instantaneously visible. Concussions are not a trauma that is as immediately recognizable as say, breaking a leg on the field. “As the clinical literature shows, there can be subtle but noticeable effects on cognition and behavior from seemingly mild trauma, and that’s the type of trauma we’re trying to simulate in the lab through this mouse model,” Sandstrom said. In fact, to the untrained eye, mice that experience closed-head injuries appear completely normal, but careful behavioral testing has revealed that these seemingly innocuous impacts have a significant and lasting effect on the ability of the mice to learn – as evidenced by test results on particular maze tasks.

Ultimately, Sandstrom is interested in understanding the factors that go into shaping the consequences of these brain injuries, with an aim to minimizing the adverse results after sports injuries. “I want to understand the basic mechanisms of brain trauma, but I’m also particularly interested in how we might change the outcomes to trauma,” Sandstrom said. Because his background is in behavioral endocrinology, a field emerging at the interface of brain, behavior and the endocrine (hormonal) systems, he wants to explore how  endocrine environments alter the brain’s response to trauma. “Understanding the mechanisms through which hormones alter outcome could lead to a number of different next steps,” Sandstrom said. “We could do endocrine intervention therapy or at least start to ask more useful questions about how we might clinically intervene after these sports-related head injuries.”

In the course of doing some literature-based research, Sandstrom has already made one notable discovery, though it was not about the brain’s response to trauma. “My students and I came across some Boston researchers who were involved in the same area of brain research that we were exploring,” he said. “Long story short, after exchanging some e-mails with them, it turned out that their chief researcher was a Williams alum, working as an emergency room physician and concussion researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital.” (After a little digging, I found out that the alum is Rebekah Mannix ’90). Sandstrom and his summer research students, Nitsan Goldstein ’15, Ellen Cook ’15 and Jenna Adams ’14 visited Mannix over the summer. It was the beginning of something that Ephs tend to discover again and again – it’s an awfully small world after Williams. “Williams alums turn up everywhere, and they’re doing good work,” Sandstrom said. “Now we’re even looking into working on some collaborative projects with the Boston team.”