Students Study Concussions at Winter Dew Tour

OGDEN, Utah – Weber State University students will ask extreme snow sports athletes to let them monitor their epic crashes, wipeouts and wrecks at the Winter Dew Tour at Breckenridge, Colo., Dec. 13-16.

Graduate and undergraduate students in athletic training and nursing are attending the competition to gather novel research on concussions related to extreme snow sports through helmet sensors, video monitoring and blood draws.

“This offers great exposure for our students who will be involved in the event from beginning to end,” said Matt Donahue, assistant professor in athletic training. “They’ll have unlimited access to world-class athletes, starting with a voluntary blood draw at registration.”

Students will collect baseline blood samples before competition starts and then collect them again if the athlete experiences a blow resulting in a concussion. The samples will be stored and frozen and then later sent to a lab to be analyzed. “What we’re looking for is differences in biological markers in the brain before and after a crash,” Donahue said. “As far as I know, there has not been any research done on concussions and snow sports.”

Donahue said most athletes don’t take “ringing their bell” as seriously as they should, even though concussions are linked to death, memory problems and everyday ability to function.

In addition to the blood draws, students will outfit 14 athletes with helmet sensors that are paired to a smart phone or iPad, alerting athletic trainers when a crash occurs.

Helmet sensors have been used in the military and are gaining popularity among parents of youth football players. They’re an effective and affordable way to monitor hits to the head. The device attached to the top of a helmet uses a wireless transmission to alert medical staff and athletic trainers when a hit is too hard. “One of the biggest problems of concussions is under reporting,” Donahue said. “These athletes have probably suffered multiple concussions, but they have rarely been properly diagnosed or properly cared for afterward.”

Tiffany Vlahos, a senior in athletic training, will assist in the research. “The helmet sensors are rigged to go off at a certain threshold, not just a tap or a bump,” Vlahos said. “Green means it’s a mild hit and not really serious.  If it’s yellow we’ll let the athlete know we picked up a collision and then check for signs of a concussion and determine if further assessments are needed.”

Donahue doesn’t know what kind of forces they will encounter but expects them to be much higher than in football where the bulk of concussions studies have been done. “Extreme snow sport athletes compete at high speeds, get lots of air, and they come down on a solid, icy surface,” Donahue said. “Our students will likely witness high-velocity injures that are very related to the Utah area.”

Research shows a concussion is more likely when the impact is at 90 gravitational forces or above. To put it in perspective, turns during high-speed car racing produce just five G-forces.

Students will also mount video cameras at strategic locations around the event site to document all crashes that result in an injury or concussion. By monitoring the footage, they can determine how athletes crash, where they land or if there is a concussion or any other injury.

The research at the Dew Tour will contribute to the first-of-its-kind, four-year longitudinal study at WSU that is investigating overall brain health in college athletes from incoming freshmen to graduating seniors. The study uses biomarkers to identify possible brain decay and memory loss in athletes who participate in contact sports throughout their college career.

“We are running out of funding, but it’s essential this research continues if we are to change attitudes about high-impact youth sports and helmet requirements,” said Jordan Hamson-Utley, assistant professor in athletic training. “It’s not just the athlete who is sidelined for a concussion we’re concerned about, it’s the athlete who takes repeated, undetected blows to the head. We can’t repair the damage, but we can stop it from happening.”

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Matt Donahue, assistant professor

401-369-2471 •

Jordan Hamson-Utley, assistant professor

801-626-7530 •

Tiffany Vlahos, WSU senior

801-710-9359 •


Kimberly Jensen, University Communications
801-626-7581 •