UTC professor uses virtual reality to shine light on the reality of concussions

Gary Wilkerson says concussions may be a reason for more ankle and knee injuries

CHATTANOOGA (WDEF) – High school football started a couple of weeks ago.

College’s Week 1 begins Thursday.

The Vols take on Ball State September 1st, and the Mocs face Wofford on Saturday.

Football brings out more ankle and knee injuries.

One graduate professor at UTC says many of those might actually be due to concussions.

Gary Wilkerson is a graduate professor of Health & Human Performance. He’s also a football fan, and he’s seen the injuries that later ended the lives of Junior Seau, Shane Dronett, Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson.

It’s CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. A progressive brain condition that’s thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head or episodes of concussions.

Wilkerson says someone who’s had a concussion is more likely to suffer more injuries on the field, or even in combat.

“We’re just beginning to unravel what the effects really are. It’s very challenging because there are no symptoms. It’s a completely asymptomatic process, which is why we are doing the (virtual reality) training. Because we want to be able to detect if there’s something that’s not perfectly normal, we want to detect it as soon as we can. We don’t know if we can fix it or not, but you certainly can’t fix it if you don’t know it’s there.”

Wilkerson uses virtual reality to get research on brain processes after concussion symptoms. To show how the test works, Mocs junior running back Ailym Ford was the test subject.

Once he put on the headset, the test is to lunge in either the same or opposite direction a particular shape is going. Depending on your score, Wilkerson can see whether you’ve had a concussion, and how it may affect you.

“I can see characteristic patterns, characteristic profiles in people who have had multiple concussions. Now…can we fix it? We don’t know. We feel pretty confident that wherever you are, we can make you better.”

I took the test, too. I wasn’t perfect, but I suffered a few concussions in my lifetime.

Ford wasn’t perfect either. One thing we noticed was there were times the running back did a stutter-step move to go in a different direction. Wilkerson says that split second may cost him on the field.

Wilkerson: “Indecision is very often a part of the susceptibility. The more confident you are in your responses, the more protected you are. Milliseconds matter.”

Ford: “As soon as you hesitate, that’s when you get it wrong. Just like on the field. As soon as you hesitate, you miss the hole. You miss the gap, and … that’s how you lose.”

Concussions are bad enough. Wilkerson says other things, like high intake of sugars and not getting proper amounts of sleep, can exacerbate any concussion symptoms.

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