Physical activity plays a key role in increasing health and well-being across the human lifespan. This theme may include activity around physiology and nutrition, physical activity and workplace interventions, biomechanics and injury, applied sports psychology and public health and engineering.

Available PhD projects

1. Concussion care and neuro-recovery

UQ academic lead

Dr Vincent Kelly, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science, School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences

Exeter academic lead

Associate Professor Huw Williams, Associate Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology and Co-Director of the Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research (CCNR), College of Life and Environmental Sciences

Project description

Sport is generally highly protective of health and well-being. However, athletes, parents, schools and sporting governing bodies of all contact sports worldwide are concerned that sports-related concussion (SRC) can reduce quality of health/life in current and retired athletes. Concern regarding SRC has been expressed through media and government bodies. In rugby, which is a sport with one of the highest level of concussion per player hour, the cases of Ben Robinson, a schoolboy who died after suffering repeated SRC, and Liz Partridge, a young Devon player who also died after repeated injury, have led to increased concerns over player safety. As well as such extreme acute effects, there has also been a growing concern over whether repeated concussions are linked with early dementia (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)).  In response to such concerns at the professional level, regulators have initiated changes to rules to mitigate such risk (e.g. tackling, guidance on graduated return to play (GRTP) following recovery). However, it is acknowledged that guidelines for GRTP lack a coherent evidence base, and are not individualised as they might be.

To investigate the prevalence and potential mechanisms of chronic brain injury the proposed PhD will utilise high-level neuroimaging, neurocognitive testing, physiological, bio-mechanical and blood (Tau) marker signs of injury in a large group of player participants. Longitudinal measures will be taken during pre-season training and then at intervals through the season, with involvement (alongside concussion clinic) of testing of any in-season concussion, and post-season.

A key goal will be to develop a battery of tests to create individual player biometric passports that can be used to identify quantitative measures that predict when it is safe to return to play. Populations available for this work include elite University Rugby players (UoE and UQ), academy players and current professional players of rugby (including Exeter Chiefs and Brisbane Broncos). In the latter stages, the PhD will examine whether supplementation with nutraceuticals such as flavonoids is able to hasten recovery from concussion. Animal studies and one human Phase II trial suggest that flavonoids hasten recovery from traumatic brain injury. However, this has not been assessed in sport concussion.

In conjunction with determining markers of damage, the studentship will also involve designing methods for the analysis of risk (exposure to concussion) and examining protective factors (social networks; diet & exercise; return to play paradigm) which mitigate the risk in current functions in athletes.

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