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Sports-Related Concussion in Collegiate Athletes: The Potential Benefits of Using Graded Neuropsychological Tests With High Ceilings.

OBJECTIVE: Sports-related concussion management in collegiate athletes has been focused on return-to-play. However, resuming schoolwork without a gradual stepwise reintroduction contributes to symptom exacerbation, delayed recovery, and adverse academic performance. Return-to-learn guidelines are limited by a lack of sensitivity in methods monitoring cognitive function. This study evaluated 2 neuropsychological tests, the Sternberg test and the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT), with high ceilings for sensitivity to deficits in speed of information processing, cognitive efficiency, and complex attention.

SETTING: Academic center research laboratory.

PARTICIPANTS: We recruited 56 male and female collegiate contact and noncontact sports athletes. They were categorized into as follows: (1) nonconcussed (n = 23; 7F, 16M); (2) chronic (n = 21; 4F, 17M), at least 1 year from their last concussion; and (3) acute (n = 12; 1F, 11M), within 2 weeks from concussion.

DESIGN: Observational cohort study.

MAIN MEASURES: The PASAT assesses complex attention. The Sternberg test examines processing speed and cognitive efficiency. Cognitive difficulty increases with progression through the tasks for both the PASAT and the Sternberg test. The mean outcome differences of the 3 groups (nonconcussed, acute, and chronic) across the 3 or 4 conditions (difficulty level) were measured with repeated-measures analysis of variance and subsequent pairwise comparison.

RESULTS: For processing speed (Sternberg reaction time), the acute group responded slower than the chronic group on the medium (P = .021, Bonferroni corrected) and hard difficulty tasks (P = .030, Bonferroni corrected). For cognitive efficiency (Sternberg reaction time variability), the acute group had increased reaction time variability compared with the chronic group on the medium difficulty task (P = .04, Bonferroni corrected). For complex attention (PASAT omissions), there was a difference between the acute and nonconcussed groups on the moderate-hard difficulty trial (P = .023, least significant difference [LSD] corrected) and between the acute and chronic groups for hard difficulty trial (P = .020, LSD corrected). The acute group performed worse, with progressively shorter interstimulus intervals.

CONCLUSION: Neuropsychological testing without ceiling effects can capture higher-level cognitive dysfunction and use of such tests can contribute to the understanding of how collegiate athletes are affected by SRC. Future studies can investigate optimal testing batteries that include neuropsychological testing with high ceilings and whether the pattern of performance has implications for the return-to-learn process after SRC in the college setting.

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