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Steven Kornguth stands in front of an illustration of the human brain

If you’re an athlete or soldier, or anyone vulnerable to a head injury, you’ve asked the question.

That’s because concussions are a type of non-penetrating traumatic brain injury (TBI), and it’s not known how many can lead to debilitating later-in-life health consequences such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a devastating degenerative brain disease found in some athletes, soldiers, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

The prevailing thought has been that TBIs elicit the same physiological response across the population—that most people are similarly affected by one or more head injuries and the best–and really only—response to a TBI is to limit exposure.

It turns out, though, that asking how many concussions is too many isn’t the right question to ask, because it may not be the right way to think about how and to whom TBIs cause damage.

According to research by Steven Kornguth, the right questions have to do with vulnerability versus resilience, and protection versus overcoming.

For some people, one or more TBIs can have devastating effects later in life. For others, whether they’ve had a few or many, there are limited long-term consequences. Because TBIs are experienced differently by different people, there are more relevant ways for you to think about TBI:

  • What’s your vulnerability to TBI to and what’s your level of resilience?
  • What’s the level of protection you need from a TBI and how can you can overcome its effects once you’ve had one?

“TBI affects people in the prime of their lives. How do we change that? How do we help them? That’s a big motivation for me,” Kornguth says.

Steven Kornguth stands in front of a class of undergraduates at UT Austin

Steven Kornguth teaches “Autoimmune Disease,” an undergraduate course in the College of Education, cross-listed in Undergraduate Studies. The course is open to undergraduates from across the university.

Kornguth is looking at the surprising role of the body’s autoimmune system in TBI development. He is a senior research fellow in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education and professor of neurology at Dell Medical School.

There are molecular, cellular and systemic responses to traumatic head and body events, so he and his colleagues are asking a new and surprising question: What is the body’s autoimmune response to TBIs?

Rather than simply looking at limiting exposure to concussions, Kornguth is looking at those who may have high resilience and would be unlikely to suffer long-term consequences, and then what role the autoimmune response plays in that.

Is there an evolving autoimmune process that leads to CTE? If that’s the case, can customized treatment protocols be applied for the management of the autoimmune disease process? Can better and more specialized equipment be provided?

These questions are leading them in an attempt to determine if there are pharmacological treatments that can be offered to reduce the effects of TBI and prevent the development of CTE.

If researchers can understand the level of vulnerability an individual may have in the first place, it’s possible there can be medications given to vulnerable populations before and/or after a TBI that will limit autoimmune response.

Steven Kornguth sits with undergraduates in his Autoimmune Diseases course

Steven Kornguth sits with undergraduates in his Autoimmune Diseases course.

Kornguth is one of the nation’s foremost researchers on the long-term effects of concussions on athletes and soldiers. For years, he has worked on biodefense programs with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Madison, University of Texas at Austin, and the Army Research Laboratories and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Washington, D.C.

But each spring of the academic year, you can find him leading an undergraduate signature course, Autoimmune Disease, talking about sense-making and the autoimmune system with 18-22 year-olds.

Why does Kornguth choose to teach undergrads? “Why wouldn’t I?” he says. “The rate of scientific discovery relating to the cause and treatment of these diseases is progressing very rapidly, and so as both a faculty member and student, I find there is a new insight we all perceive from each day’s discussion,” he says.

How he does it:

Sense-making is one element of Kornguth’s life work. It’s the process of finding patterns in seemingly unrelated data to gain new insight for civilian and soldier protection.

Sense-making is critical in medicine, he says, “where a practitioner can take what appear to be dispersed signs and symptoms reported by a patient, and align these into a fused diagnosis.”

This same process, he notes, is critical in technology innovation and intelligence-gathering, and many other aspects of life in the world.

Learn more:

In a series of podcasts produced by the Office of Instructional Innovation, Steven Kornguth discusses various aspects of health and autoimmune disease.

Listen to the Learning from Texas Education Innovators podcast.

Join Professor Hirofumi Tanaka as he explains what hardening of the arteries is, why it is an important indicator of aging, and what can be done to maintain arterial health.

Tanaka is a professor and the Director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory within the Kinesiology and Health Education Department at the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Tanaka’s research interests revolve around vascular aging that manifests as the stiffening (hardening) of large elastic artery and vascular endothelial dysfunction. Masters athletes or aging competitive athletes are often studied as the model of successful aging. He has published over 250 research articles in this area.

Discovery Minute is a video series that highlights and introduces various topics that are researched by faculty at the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Our faculty explore topics that have a direct impact on education, policy, health, and our community.

 

Portrait of Thomas Hunt

Thomas Hunt

Associate Professor & Graduate Advisor, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education

Assistant Director for Academic Affairs, H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports

Thomas M. Hunt is recognized internationally for his research on the place of sport in global political affairs. He is an expert in the field and has appeared in outlets as varied as CNN International, Rolling Stone, and the Australian Broadcast Network. His book, Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960–2008, is considered the seminal work on the subject. Hunt serves on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s advisory council for the U.S. Olympic Academy.

 

 

Kinesiology and Health Education junior Vida Nwadiei and Educational Psychology Professor Kevin Cokley will travel to Ghana this summer as part of a new research project, The Color Complex. The project, which received the President’s Award for Global Learning, is a cross-disciplinary look at colorism, both in Ghana and here at the University of Texas at Austin, in order to mitigate its harmful effects.

Colorism is discrimination based on skin color or skin shade. Dominate groups can prefer people with lighter skin shades, and the preference can also occur within communities of color. In some cultures, the preference for lighter skin causes people to use harmful skin bleaching creams in order to lighten their own tone.

Nwadiei, Cokley, and a team of students and faculty across campus, will investigate how businesses can stop the promotion of conventional “fair and lovely” beauty standards to young women of color. The team will conduct a qualitative study about the perceptions of skin bleaching and use their findings to create a campaign that educates people on the dangers of the practice.

–Videos by Christina S. Murrey

“Eating food you have prepared is a great way to ensure you are getting good nutrition without a lot of added fats, sugars, or additives,” says Brittany Crim, lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. “Regular grocery shopping is a great habit to help ensure you are equipped with what you need to prepare your own meals. Knowing how to navigate the grocery store and choose items that are nutritious is a good way to help you stick to a healthy lifestyle.”

These quick research-based tutorials can help guide you and ensure that your next grocery store run leads to a healthier diet.

Bonus: Read Senior Lecturer Dixie Stanforth’s research about how social influences can undermine diet and exercise decision-making.

–Videos by Hannah Lerner

A mother and daughter walking through a city

The HIV/AIDS epidemic that started in the 1980s devastated populations around the world, reaching its peak in 2005. International awareness and research efforts have made strides to combat HIV, but the battle is far from over.

The rate of new HIV infections has significantly decreased from 130,400 new infections in 1985 to 39,393 new infections in 2015. While this is good news, there are still populations that are considered high risk for contracting HIV. Among these are low-income Black and Latina women who may not have sufficient resources to protect themselves from HIV infection.

A momentous development in the prevention of the spread of HIV has been the PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) prevention, a pill that can reduce the chance of contracting HIV by up to 99 percent. Although this medication has been available since 2012, access and awareness are still an issue.Photo of Liesl Nydegger

Liesl Nydegger, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, is working with local communities in Austin to help find effective interventions for Black and Latina women in high-risk environments for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.

“There are obstacles such as housing, transportation, relationships, poverty, gentrification, and structural barriers that make it hard for women to focus on their sexual health,” says Nydegger. “If we can help with basic needs, that would decrease issues such as substance abuse or living with an abusive partner. These supports create positive effects that can trickle down into overall health improvements.”

Nydegger’s study involves a partnership with Austin’s local SafePlace, a shelter for people affected by domestic violence or sexual assault. By interviewing these individuals over three months, she will be able to find longitudinal stresses that contribute to poor health. This research phase will help to inform structural interventions that can be proposed to improve health in these groups. Nydegger is conducting this study alongside Kasey Claborn, an assistant professor in the Dell Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry.

Some of the women in the high-risk group that Nydegger studies have been survivors of childhood sexual abuse, which can have psychological impacts that make it hard for them to have healthy sexual relationships. These include relationships in which the woman was under 16 years old, and more than five years younger than her partner. The age difference creates a power differential that can be carried into adulthood, making it hard for women to negotiate condom use with their current partners.

Nydegger conducted similar interviews with women in Milwaukee and found that there was little awareness for options such as PrEP. “Although women were aware that STIs were prevalent in their community, they did not consider themselves as high-risk for HIV infection. Even more concerning, three of the four women interviewed reported that their doctors were unaware of PrEP,” says Nydegger.

“Advertisements and awareness campaigns for the PrEP option do exist, but they are most often targeted towards men who have sex with men. This group is considered higher-risk for contracting HIV than women, but women have certain vulnerabilities that make it difficult for them to protect themselves from infection.

Women who are in abusive or coercive relationships often do not have the option to negotiate condom use with their partners, which leaves them vulnerable to infection,” says Nydegger. “Options such as PrEP offer a discreet way for women to protect themselves.”

 

The winter Olympics may have wrapped up earlier this year, but charges of doping still reverberate.

With all of the scandals surrounding this year’s Winter Olympics, it’s hard to ignore the importance of ethics in sports. Between Russia being barred from the Olympics for doping and former U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar being sentenced for sexual abuse, news headlines have been rife with controversy.

But controversy and ethics in sports is not new.

Society tends to put professional athletes on a pedestal – casting them as idols and role models. In reality, professional sports can serve more as a mirror to society, but are not always held to the same standards. Tolga Ozyurtcu, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, says “In times like these, it is important to uphold ethical principles and not let a person’s reputation or fame downplay their actions. Although sports have numerous positive benefits, people should not ignore the bad when celebrating the good.”

Ozyurtcu addresses issues like these in his teaching. He cites many sports events and controversies of the past that still resonate with us today, such as:

He also teaches a course, Historical and Ethical Issues in Physical Culture and Sports, that helps undergraduate kinesiology and health education students consider these topics. It’s a course with value that extends beyond the realm of athletics. “We focus on the ethical decision-making process: how do we identify an issue as a matter of ethics, examine it, and find the courage to take action,” says Ozyurtcu.

His course uses historical events to examine ethical issues, and current events also shape much of the class discussion. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics, for example, provoked ethical conversations around:

  • competing for a nation you don’t reside in or have much connection to,
  • allowing children to try risky sports, such as luge or skeleton,
  • and gold-medalist Shaun White’s sexual harassment allegations.

Says Ozyurtcu, who welcomes anyone to contact him to attend one of his lectures, “These examples allow students to develop a process of reasoning that, hopefully, should translate into their careers and lives beyond the Forty Acres.”

Tolga Ozyurtcu instructing a class

Tolga Ozyurtcu instructing a class

Though the discussions in Ozyurtcu’s classes focus on sports and ethics, the concepts can be applied to other aspects of life. Ozyurtcu, therefore, tries to highlight the moral dilemmas that arise from justifying less than exemplary behavior in the pursuit of competitive success.

“An example I often use in class is based on youth sports, which we tend to justify because of non-sports benefits like discipline, integrity, teamwork, and leadership.  However, when we turn around and coach kids to do something such as deceiving a referee, we completely undermine our justifications. This may seem like a minor indiscretion, but the lessons we learn as children have outsized legacies in our lives,” says Ozyurtcu.

Although students may not have to deal with issues as grave as those that plagued the Winter Games, studying ethics can help them develop a process of reasoning that extends beyond their time in school.

It can be difficult for those with a fine motor disability to complete certain gestures. An undergraduate researcher is studying how different forces or force combinations may be more strenuous to conduct than others. By having volunteers perform specific motions, his research has the ability to assist physical therapists in demonstrating therapy processes to patients.

Pinching motor skills apparatus

Motor Skills Apparatus

Jacob Vines, senior Kinesiology and Health Education student, was awarded the Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Office of Undergraduate Research for spring 2018. His novel exploratory project titled “Digit Force Magnitude and Inter-digit Force Coordination Effects on Performance of a Complex Low-Level Force Pinch” examines motor function in adults.

Inspiration for Research

While working in the Motor Coordination Lab led by Professor Lawrence Abraham, Vines was inspired to pursue this research after seeing the crossover between the research of hand and finger motor control and the process of rehabilitation of hand and finger injuries in physical therapy.

Research Overview

In his research project, volunteers perform a complex coordination task to determine the dexterity of right-handed adults aged 18 to 30 years with no known neurological or musculoskeletal disorders of the right hand or arm.

Photo of Jacob Vines

Jacob Vines

“The complex coordination task was to use the right thumb and index finger to move a cursor counterclockwise around a diamond shape that was placed in four locations on the computer screen (up/down/right/left). For this task, force with the index finger moved the cursor vertically and force with the thumb moved the cursor horizontally,” said Vines.

“The choice of doing the index finger and thumb is to imitate general fine motor control like unbuttoning a shirt, and the use of the diamond task is to have varying forces between the thumb and index finger, which occurs in everyday life activities,” said Vines. “By using different finger combinations or a different task, the result would change completely from the current study. It would also not be as applicable to everyday life activities.”

Advice for Students Pursuing Undergraduate Research

Vines credits the research with helping guide him in pursuing a professional career. He has been able to better understand the process of scientific research as he decides whether or not he wants to pursue physical therapy and research different physical therapy techniques.

He advises students who are interested in conducting research to “formally and confidently email different labs doing research that you find interesting. Also, talk to any professors who teach classes you enjoy and ask if they have any open undergraduate research positions.”

A casual conversation on a flight from back to Austin from Newark led to an appearance on the Dr. Oz Show for Tim Fleisher, a Ph.D. candidate in exercise science in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education.

On an episode set to air May 16, 2018, Fleisher shares his research and exercise techniques to ease lower back pain and strengthen abdominal muscles.

“I sat next to Dr. Oz on a flight on the way back from working with the Harvard swim team at their Ivy League championships.  He sat down next to me and we just started talking. I am the head of the BIO 446L anatomy lab, so I had my iPad that I teach from. He went to Harvard and his son is on the water polo team. We immediately hit it off and I pitched him on the idea of balloons to strengthen the abs. He loved it and here we are,” says Fleisher.

Fleisher does his research in the Neuromuscular Physiology Research Laboratory at The University of Texas at Austin. He focuses on neuromuscular recruitment strategies of the deep hip muscles in healthy individuals versus women with postpartum stress urinary incontinence. Fleisher is also a STOTT PILATES instructor trainer and licensed massage therapist that focuses on post rehabilitative and “prehabilitative” strategies to help people with movement impairments.

Fleisher says he got the idea for his research when he was working in Brazil as a certifier for Pilates instructors. He pitched the idea to Associate Professor Lisa Griffin, of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, and thus became a part of the program.

Fleisher’s appearance on the Dr. Oz show will be May 16, 2018, at 1 p.m. CST on Fox (Fox 7 KTBC in Austin). Fleisher has produced a full-length video that demonstrates the exercise he presents on the show.

 

What do you want your child to get from sports?

Leadership? Health benefits? The thrill of winning and the dignity of handling defeat with grace?

Think about what psychological and social skills you value and how those may correlate with success in all areas of life. How can you use sports to instill them? Don’t rely on coaches or other adults to do that for you.

Organized sports require your child to balance the immediate reward of a win and the delayed reward of a season-long championship pursuit. Sports can help kids face disappointment publicly and learn how to focus on process-oriented goals.

When the first question you ask your child after a game is “Did you win?” that shapes her psychological response to her performance.

If she’s a four-year-old chasing around the usual swarm of other kids on the soccer field, she doesn’t have the self-awareness, sport-related skills, or psychological development to make a clear impact on the outcome of that game. Yet you just framed how she interprets how you’re evaluating her performance in terms that are out of her control.

Instead, try asking her if she had fun, what she was proud of herself for doing, and one thing she thinks she could improve-–things that are process-oriented and generally under her control.

Matt Bowers helping his son climb a rock wall

Photo by Christina S. Murrey


Which sport should your daughter or son play and why?

As a caveat, so much of the answer to this question depends on the individual coach and the league, but some sports clearly foster different things than others.

Do you want a sport that produces better physiological and health outcomes? Try ultimate Frisbee or cross country.

Do you want a sport that could lead to lifelong participation? Go for tennis or golf.

Do you want a social environment with more peer-led, democratic social structures? Try skateboarding.

Do you want to instill an American rite of passage? Try baseball or softball.

This isn’t a plug for a specific sport, but rather an opportunity to think about what sports can deliver based on their nature, their design, and their implementation. Look for sports–and sport leagues–that align with your values and what you want emphasized in your child’s development.

Matt Bowers with his son at the climbing gym.Matt Bowers researches the management of systems for athlete and coach development. He also investigates the potential supplemental impact that non-organized sport settings—such as pick-up sports and video games—may have on these development systems. Drawing from a blend of quantitative, qualitative, and historical methodologies, his research focuses on leveraging this understanding of settings to influence the design and implementation of sport programs and policies that promote both elite performance and mass participation throughout the lifespan.