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University of Waikato Professor awarded $1.1m research grant


Professor Nicola Starkey from the University of Waikato has been awarded a project grant of $1.1M by the Health Research Council to research patterns of recovery from concussion in children and adolescents.

By studying an intended 600 children and adolescents aged between 5-17 years from across the Auckland and Waikato regions, Professor Starkey aims to present findings that contribute to the formation of national and international evidence-based guidelines, informing how doctors manage child concussion patients. ACC is part of the study’s advisory group.

It is intended these guidelines, once developed, would provide straightforward information for clinicians to pass along to parents about what symptoms they should be looking out for and how long it will take to recover, allowing for careful management of their child’s return to school and sport.

Currently, guidelines exist for adults but not for children, and this is the gap that Professor Starkey intends to fill. Her research will also test the validity of the common assumption that children recover more quickly from concussions because they heal easily during growth stages.

Professor Starkey says that what has actually been found more recently is that “a brain injury can disrupt how the brain develops normally. Young children are one of the most vulnerable groups for concussion due to the sports they play, riding bikes and generally performing higher-risk activities compared to adults.

“Children and adolescents count for about thirty percent of all concussion cases, and given their age the potential outcomes of the symptoms could be grave, including making them more susceptible to further concussions.”

Another key facet to the concussion research that Professor Starkey wants to address is any inequality in treatment and care, so the research team is planning to recruit 200 Māori children, 200 Pacific Island children and 200 non-Māori and non-Pacific Island children for the study.

“It could well be that we need to produce slightly different guidelines for different ethnic groups, or the information may need to be tailored in a certain way,” says Professor Starkey.

The research will be undertaken at Waikato, Middlemore and Auckland Hospitals. Professor Starkey has already conducted a pilot study with Waikato Hospital on the subject.

One potential roadblock is identified as gaining consent from parents, as an injury like concussion can lead to a stressful time for those involved. However, in the pilot study Professor Starkey noted that those approached had been happy to participate when there was clear information provided in the hospital emergency department.
Professor Starkey has been conducting research into traumatic brain injury over the last ten years and she is also part of the University of Waikato’s Transport Research Group investigating driver behavior.

The issue of concussion was made personal last year, as Professor Starkey’s son received a concussion at Christmas.

“Being the parent of a child with concussion really brings it home to you what the parents themselves are going through. It’s a confusing and stressful time when you are told to take your child home and keep an eye on them, ensure they rest but don’t let them sleep too much, don’t let them watch TV and so on.

“Concussion, and brain injury in general, is often tricky as your child is just not quite right, and unlike a cut or bruise you can’t see when the injury is healed,” explains Professor Starkey.

While the official start date of the grant is 1 October, Professor Starkey and her team, made up of fellow researchers from the University of Waikato, Waikato Hospital, as well as AUT and the University of Auckland, will start participant recruitment soon, once ethics approvals are in place.

This grant is part of the Health Research Council’s recent funding announcement of $60.3 million for 53 research projects, including Pacific health and Rangahau Māori projects. These grants form part of the HRC’s $81 million investment in new research projects and programmes announced on 26 June by Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Hon Dr Megan Woods.

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