Vanier scholar explores the impact of head injury on the brain's ability to function

What really happens to our brains after a concussion?

Alexander 'Sandy' Wright is trying to find out with the Integrative Sports Concussion Research Group at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. While concussions have received a lot of press coverage, it's still an area that isn't quite understood by medical professionals.

"I endured a substantial concussion after having already begun my PhD work," Sandy says, "which really shifted my perspective on the value of the work we're doing, and what we're trying to accomplish."

Sandy has been an athlete in various sports all of his life. This sparked an interest in science and the human body when he was growing up.

He completed his BSc in kinesiology at Simon Fraser University in 2009 and his MSc in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in 2011. As an MD/PhD candidate, Sandy is currently working with Drs. Paul van Donkelaar, Phil Ainslie, Brad Monteleone and Alexander Rauscher to explore the relationships between how badly athletes hit their heads and the changes in control of brain's blood flow after a concussion. This may, in turn, have an impact on the brain's ability to function overall.

Sandy will evaluate 75-100 athletes before and after a mild traumatic head injury. Using an ultrasound machine, he will first evaluate the blood flow in their brains, while they do various things, such as reading, multitasking, and exercising. While the athletes are competing in their respective sports, Sandy will then evaluate how often they experience head trauma. Due to the aggressive nature of their respective sports, he thinks that 20 of these athletes will suffer a concussion. Should this happen, he will conduct the same evaluation tests 72 hours, 2 weeks and 1 month after their diagnosis. Sandy will also use new imaging techniques to help identify what parts of the brain were affected.

"Our research results will help improve upon our current diagnostic and management protocols for this injury," he says.  "The information we gain from this research should help towards the development of objective tools that health professionals can turn to when working with patients, including the possibility of new imaging techniques."

Sandy is honoured and humbled to be a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar. In addition to providing new opportunities for collaboration, the award has also helped others believe in the value of his work. In his opinion, this belief system is critical for any other students who are seeking funding through the Vanier program.

"Dedicate time towards becoming an excellent communicator, both on paper and in conversation," he says. "Beyond that, be yourself.  If you're a motivated individual who takes initiative, let your passion speak for itself."

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