Jan. 8, 2021

Concussions lead to brain blood flow studies

PhD student, kinesiology prof awarded grant to investigate cerebral blood flow changes in adolescence through adulthood

As a teenager, basketball was a passion for Joel Burma, now a PhD candidate in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology under the supervision of Dr. Jonathan Smirl, PhD.

Burma honed his skills shooting hoops in the gym, played in high school and, in 2013, landed a spot as point guard on his university team at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus.

“I found it so easy to get to the gym," says Burma. "It never felt like I had to go work out or go to practice. I just loved it.”

But in just his first game of the year, Burma dove for the ball, smacking his head on the floor. An opposing player then fell on his head. The incident caused a concussion. Like many athletes, he got up and finished the remaining three minutes of game play, but later felt something was not right.

“I remember on the way home, I felt off,” he says, explaining that the following day he felt sick and was unable to focus on his studies.

The coach realized Burma had suffered a concussion, and the young athlete sat on the sidelines while he recovered.  

A month later he rejoined the team but took an elbow to the head that resulted in another concussion. It took Burma eight months to recover, which ended his basketball career. He suffered with headaches, dizziness, inability to focus, sensitivity to light and sound and a feeling of pressure in his head.

Looking back, Burma realizes he had suffered an undiagnosed concussion in Grade 11 that may have contributed to the severity of his injury.

“Each time you get a concussion it gets worse, so recovery takes longer and you are more susceptible to future concussions,” says Burma.

Although it was hard to give up his passion, the experiences fuelled Burma’s desire to understand the brain. He is currently working in the Smirl lab, investigating how brain blood flow is regulated — an important key to understand how the brain changes under stress, such as after a concussion.

UCalgary research project

Although the brain represents just two per cent of the body’s weight, it receives about 15 per cent of the heart’s output and 20 per cent of the body’s glucose and oxygen. Cerebral blood flow is critical to maintaining consciousness and promoting healthy neural development. When there is an imbalance, there is an increased risk of complications such as brain fog, fainting and even strokes.

Brain blood flow is maintained through a series of regulatory processes in the body, which have been studied mainly in healthy adult male populations at rest.

This leaves limited knowledge when it comes to children, adolescents and females. Additionally, although moderate exercise increases brain blood flow by up to 20 per cent, few studies have been done immediately following exercise. Little is known about how long an exercise session may impact this system.

The Libin Cardiovascular Institute’s Smirl, a researcher in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology, recently received a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery Grant to study brain blood flow processes throughout the pediatric-to-adult aging process in males and females.

Over the next five years, the assistant professor will investigate cerebral blood flow changes in adolescence through adulthood, looking at how long exercise impacts cerebral blood flow, and identifying how cardiovascular fitness levels impact cerebral blood flow.

Recruitment is now open.

“We are really excited to get started on this work,” says Smirl. “The regulation of cerebral blood flow is an important system to study because the brain is responsible for controlling a large portion of our bodily functions, thus furthering our understanding will have implications on future work in this area.”

Throughout his graduate training, Smirl studied how extreme conditions affect the brain blood flow system. He was part of a lab that looked at changes to the system at high altitudes (near Mount Everest Base Camp), in heart-transplant patients and collaborated with investigations involving extreme breath-hold free divers.

His future research will focus on concussions and concussion management.

To be part of this research project, contact cerebrovascular.lab@ucalgary.ca.

Dr. Jonathan Smirl, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine.