n August 2008, high school athlete Matthew Gfeller sustained a fatal traumatic brain injury during his first varsity football game. One year later, Matthew’s family and friends turned their grief into hope by funding the creation of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Established in 2010, the Gfeller Center has received more than $12 million in funding for studies that run the gamut of concussion research. World-class faculty, including founding director Kevin Guskiewicz, now interim chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, and co-director Jason Mihalik, associate professor of exercise and sport science, are leading the way in this field of research and discovery. Their findings impact the lives of our country’s elite warfighters and athletes in the state of North Carolina and beyond.
In a recent CDC study in collaboration with UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center, Guskiewicz and his team identified at-risk football players at four North Carolina high schools. They conducted one-on-one and small-group interventions designed to alert players and coaches of dangerous behaviors and reduce the chance of brain injuries. Biology major and Chancellor’s Science Scholar John Atwater ’19 worked with Guskiewicz on the project for two years.
“I played high school football and wanted to find a way to make the game safe, to give back to a sport that instilled so many of my key morals and values,” said Atwater.
A current multidisciplinary initiative led by Mihalik — in partnership with U.S. Army Special Operations Command — is tracking neurological function in elite warfighters. Special Operations Forces soldiers complete a series of tests, including neurocognition, balance, vision and sensory performance, blood biomarkers and neuroimaging. These tests are repeated following brain injuries and at various points throughout their career to determine the effects of blast exposures and military environments on long-term neurological health.
“We’ve recently added elements of human performance to these tests,” noted Mihalik. “These soldiers are asked to do a lot, and we wanted to make sure we’re tracking them well throughout their careers and lifespans. By repeating the same measures years later on the same people, we are able to identify who is changing or deteriorating and intervene appropriately.”
Mihalik has tested almost 400 soldiers to date, and the study, supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, is expanding to other Special Operations Forces populations, including a pilot project with 3rd Special Forces Groups (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“It is humbling to watch the growth of the Gfeller Center from two faculty and two Ph.D. students to an organization that is home to 30 world-class faculty, staff, postdoctoral research associates, graduate students and undergraduate research fellows — all working together in a diverse and inclusive scientific environment,” added Mihalik. “None of our work would be possible without strong support from our federal, foundation, industry partners and, most importantly, the individual philanthropists who support the Gfeller Center’s ongoing mission.”