CONCUSSION is a serious issue in school and other sport, with some estimates suggesting the rate among Australian football teams could be as high as five injuries per team per season.
Happily, the remedy is here.
According to researchers from the University of Maryland, the answer is chocolate milk – or one particular, brain-protecting brand of milk to be precise.
The new high-protein drink, Fifth Quarter Fresh, comes from “Super, Natural” cows, according to its US manufacturer, though it’s possible they meant to say “supernatural” cows.
“Protect the Brain”, the product’s website trumpets next to a dramatic image of two American footballers banging heads in a tackle.
The website links to a press release issued in December by the University of Maryland and the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, an organisation set up to facilitate partnerships between universities and industry.
Preliminary research from the University of Maryland found the milk drink “helped high school footballers improve their cognitive and motor function over the course of a season, even after experiencing concussions”, the press release says.
“Athletes who drank the milk, compared to those who did not, scored higher after the season than before it started, specifically in the areas of verbal and visual memory,” said lead researcher Professor Jae Kun Shim from the university’s school of public health.
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Officials in Washington County, Maryland, home to the seven schools participating in the study, responded with excitement to the news.
“There is nothing more important than protecting our student-athletes,” the county’s superintendent of public schools, Clayton Wilcox, said in the press release. “Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh to all of our athletes.”
You can’t really blame education officials for taking the “findings” of a study on trust when it comes with the backing of a reputable university.
But, as this review by health news watchdog, HealthNewsReview.org, makes clear, the “boastful” press release didn’t have a lot of grounding in reality.
The university’s unpublished, non-peer reviewed research did not compare the hyped brand of chocolate milk with other products or with placebo, and the release failed to acknowledge the role of the industry partner in the research or to provide information on the magnitude of the improvement or even on which of the 36 measured outcomes improved.
That last seems kind of important given that non-concussed players improved on only nine of the 36 measures, while concussed players improved on four.
“The release highlights the protein, calcium and electrolyte content of the milk, without ever mentioning each serving also contains the equivalent of eight teaspoons of sugar,” the review says.
Excess sugar consumption is not the only potential harm of this strategy for brain protection, the review goes on.
“Concussions in high school football games and practices are especially dangerous, sometimes even fatal, when a player gets hit a second time within a few days after an initial concussion. If a belief in protective effects of chocolate milk [led] to teenagers being put back in the game too soon after a hard hit, the consequences could be devastating.”
While we don’t know the precise nature of the relationship between the university and the manufacturers of Fifth Quarter Fresh, the incident leaves a much sourer taste than the teenage footballers presumably got from their free sugary drinks.
When universities engage in partnerships with industry, they need to be transparent about any potential conflicts of interest and more, rather than less, rigorous about adhering to the highest standards in both their research and their public statements about it.
That’s something the University of Maryland may, belatedly, have realised. According to the Baltimore Business Journal, they have now announced an institutional review of the research project and their communication of its results.
Let’s hope they issue a press release about the findings of that review.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.