A report published in The Athletic online sports news outlet found that years of concussion research conducted at UNC Chapel Hill may be unreliable because researchers failed to disclose using athletes with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as test subjects for concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI) research.
The research was led by Kevin Guskiewicz, an internationally respected physician who is interim chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill, having succeeded Carol Folt, now president of the University of Southern California.
A paper published in the Journal of Scientific Practice and Integrity found abnormally high rates of incoming UNC football players and other athletes diagnosed with learning disabilities and ADHD between 2004 and 2012 — consistently three to four times more than the national average. It includes possible evidence of misuse of stimulant medication prescriptions, such as Adderall and Ritalin, which are banned by the NCAA.
The athletes diagnosed and prescribed medication were used as test subjects in concussion research, but the paper failed to disclose that information in peer-reviewed articles. While it’s common to study those variables in research, failing to state those facts taints the studies when applied to athletes without the conditions.
Now, data cited by other research and used by the NFL, other NCAA universities and even the Department of Defense may be invalid. There are 11 concussion papers published from UNC that used football players from the same study groups with abnormally high ADHD rates over a nine-year period. Of those papers, which never mentioned the diagnoses, 10 were co-authored by Guskiewicz.
The University’s concussion research has been heavily funded by grants,. Guskiewicz played a major factor in securing the money, leading what was considered the “gold standard” in research in the field. UNC received $64 million in funding by participating in the CARE Consortium, a partnership between the Department of Defense and NCAA. And last year, UNC Chapel Hill was part of a $14.7 million grant for a joint concussion and TBI study awarded by the NFL.
Guskiewicz declined to be interviewed by The Athletic, but issued a statement: “I stand by our concussion research 100 percent. Our research protocols go through a robust internal review process, and in most cases an additional external grant review process. Our research has been peer reviewed by hundreds of respected neuroscientists and sports medicine researchers before being published. I am proud of the work my colleagues at the Gfeller Center and other scholars who contributed to this work have done to help improve concussion prevention and care for athletes and service members. Every journal has its own disclosure policies; we have always fully complied with those guidelines.”