INDIANOLA, Iowa — At first glance, it looks and feels like a dental checkup.
"The athlete just sits and we swab their mouth," athletic trainer Sue Wilson said.
But it's not.
Wilson and Simpson College athletic trainer and professor of Sport Science and Health Education Mike Hadden are conducting a clinical study on an on-site concussion exam. Both athletic trainers are swabbing the mouths of Simpson College women's soccer athletes and football players to measure what's happening in their brains.
They're hoping to look deeper into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. Right now, the degenerative brain disease, likely caused by repeated head injuries, can only be found after death.
"We're looking for specific inflammatory biomarkers and we try to correlate that with a concussion test," Hadden said. "Inflammation is largely regarded and has been researched to show that it is probably the main reason why these neuro-degenerative brain diseases develop.
The reason why they're doing this research is because there isn't exactly an on-site concussion test that measures what the inflammation levels are inside the brain, according to Hadden and Wilson. They hope one day, their research can be a proven test method to be an on-site concussion test that is based on lab reporting.
"The protocol we have is the best we have right now, but it doesn't measure it at the cellular level," Wilson said.
Wilson says from experience as an athletic trainer, it could be life-changing if science can prove on the spot whether an athlete is truly ready to get back in the game after an injury. That's why she's keeping her fingers crossed that this research works.
"It takes the guessing game out of everything," she said. "You put a lab report in front of a coach and it says it's elevated and these are the numbers it has to be, coach isn't going to question it."
On the first day of research, Wilson and Hadden collected the athlete's base level. The tubes filled with saliva samples are then rushed to a freezer, because the biomarkers have to be frozen at almost negative 80 degrees.
This research will continue until fall and anytime an athlete gets hurt, their samples will be collected again.
"We'll be checking them in 20 minutes, one hour, 24 hours, 72 hours and one week," Hadden said.
Hadden says they'll ship the tubes to a research facility out in Massachusetts and should have results to study by the end of this year.
Both athletic trainers want to stress they're not against sports. They just want to see athletes safe and truly healed before they get back into the game.
"Hopefully we could develop this into a test where we can literally follow someone from the time of concussion and say, 'your biomarkers are now low, your inflammatory markers are now low and we can actually send you back into participation,'" Hadden said.
The group who funded this research was CTE Hope, created in honor of Indianola athlete Zac Easter.
Doctors confirmed Easter had CTE after he died. Brenda Easter, his mother, said his last wishes to friends and family was to raise more awareness about safety in sports and researching CTE.
On Sept. 15, the organization will hold an informational meeting with a live saliva testing demonstration. Members of CTE Hope will share more of the group's goals. Coaches, parents, teachers and other community members are invited and the meeting will be at the Valley Community Center in West Des Moines.