UK researcher making an impact

University of Kentucky researcher Jonathan Lifshitz may be about to dispel one of modern society's few ironclad certainties.

It has been a truth rarely debated that nothing productive ever comes from watching videos on YouTube.

Until now.

Lifshitz and associates may have discovered a way to help ensure the safety of football players and other athletes who suffer head injuries during athletic events.

And it all began from a bit of mindless fun watching clips of crushing tackles from football games on YouTube.

Lifshitz, a Ph.D working as an assistant professor in UK's Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center, said he caught one of his assistants, Ario Hosseini, on the video-sharing Web site.

"Ario was watching big helmet-to-helmet tackles, some hits from MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) matches, things where guys got knocked out," Lifshitz said recently.

Seeing a teachable moment, Lifshitz encouraged Hosseini and other staffers to see if they could see anything in common from the "knockout hits" they were viewing on YouTube that might help detect symptoms of concussions.

Once they really started looking, they did.

After watching some three dozen "knockout videos" on YouTube, Lifshitz, a 35-year-old father of three, and his team kept noticing that frequently just after the blow to the head there was an involuntary movement of an arm into a position similar to the en garde pose in fencing.

They now call the phenomenon The Fencing Response.

You can see an example of "fencing" in a crushing hit Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark put on Baltimore's Willis McGahee in last season's AFC Championship Game.

"That was a massive helmet-on-helmet hit," Lifshitz said. "You can clearly see McGahee's arms fencing after the collision."

Another example of fencing was apparent when Kentucky defensive tackle Myron Pryor obliterated Georgia wide receiver Mario Raley on an inside screen play in UK's 2006 upset of the Bulldogs.

While on the ground immediately after the hit, you can observe Raley's left arm assuming the en garde posture.

"That wasn't a part of our study because we didn't know about the video at that time," Lifshitz said. "But it is a great example of 'fencing.'"

Of 35 YouTube videos that featured hits that Lifshitz and Co. knew yielded concussions, 66 percent of the people on the receiving end of the blows displayed fencing.

Next, the UK researchers used lab rats to see if the phenomenon also existed with them.

At moderate impact applied to the rats' heads, 39 of 44 showed a fencing response; at mild impact, zero of 19 rats did so.

Helping trainers say no

For a layman's explanation of why the fencing phenomenon occurs, Lifshitz said the impact on the part of the brain that causes a concussion also can affect a nearby area that controls arm movement.

Lifshitz said he hopes his study can help athletics trainers, especially at the high school level, by providing another objective criteria to say no if coaches and/or parents are pressing for a player who suffered a potential concussion to return to a game.

"If the trainer can say, 'No, he fenced and that's usually a sign of a concussion,' then that is one more weapon in the arsenal to make sure athletes aren't put in dangerous situations," Lifshitz said.

The UK researcher cautions that an absence of an arm assuming the fencing position after a blow to the head should not be taken as a certainty that the player has not suffered a concussion.

"If there is no fencing, there can still be a concussion," he said.

Jim Madaleno, UK's director of sports medicine and the head trainer for the Wildcats' football team, said he has notified other Southeastern Conference schools of the fencing posture study.

"I believe they are on to something," Madaleno said. "I do think there needs to be further study in terms of how (a fencing posture occurrence) translates into severity of injury and return-to-play decisions."

Madaleno said he is gathering several years of UK practice and game tape to turn over to Lifshitz for additional study.

In addition to football and other contact sports, Lifshitz believes knowledge of the fencing posture could be helpful to the U.S. military in deciding when to return service people who receive head injuries back to combat.

But in the short term, "I really hope we can get the word out to high school football trainers," Lifshitz said. "I think this could make a big difference for them in return-to-game (decisions)."

And to think: The whole study began with goofing off on YouTube.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader