Center hires first faculty member: Dr. Eleanna Varangis
May 19, 2022
By Andrew Moser
The Michigan Concussion Center is proud to announce that Dr. Eleanna Varangis, a tenure-track assistant professor of Movement Science at the School of Kinesiology, will join the center in August 2022. She is a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University using neuroimaging and fMRI to study the relationship between brain activity and cognitive functioning in healthy aging.
This is the center’s first faculty hire under the U-M Biosciences Initiative.
We sat down with Dr. Varangis to discuss her career path, her interest in concussions, and her excitement about joining the U-M Concussion Center and the School of Kinesiology.
Michigan Concussion Center: Tell us about yourself and your career.
Eleanna Varangis: I initially envisioned myself as an economics major and going into banking. I then took my first psychology course at Barnard College, and that changed everything. A couple of years later, I took a neuroscience course, which further shaped what I wanted to do. I then happened to read an article in GQ Magazine about the long-term effects of concussions. With my passion for football, I had this ah-ha moment that perfectly married my fascination with neuroscience and my interest in football. Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, a neuroscientist, concussion researcher, and the current chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was featured in the article, and I said, “I want to work with him.”
I did a research assistantship studying steroid use before going to the University of North Carolina to begin my graduate work with Dr. Guskiewicz and Dr. Kelly Giovanello, a cognitive neuroscientist studying memory function in aging. Here I started using a cognitive neuroscience approach to study the long-term effects of football-related concussions. It was an awesome experience because I was able to combine my background in cognitive psychology with my interest in studying concussions to help a population that could be experiencing signs of cognitive impairment later in life.
Moving on from my PhD experience, I wanted to be able to make comparisons between the long-term effects of concussions on neurocognitive health and the effects of healthy aging on neurocognitive health because, in my opinion, it is hard to aptly compare older athletes with a history of concussions to healthy aging adults. So for my postdoc, I wanted to focus on the cognitive neuroscience of healthy aging.
MCC: Can you talk more about your concussion research?
EV: In graduate school, I worked with 50 to 65-year-old athletes who either stopped playing football after college or played at least five years in the National Football League. They did a full neuropsychological task battery and participants completed a working memory test in the MRI scanner. These participants were healthy, non-demented, and didn’t show any signs of active clinical depression.
When we looked at their neuropsychological task performance, there seemed to be no effect of concussion history on their neuropsychological tasks. We then compared people who had played in the NFL versus those who played in college, and then people with high concussion history (3+ concussions) versus low concussion history (0-1 concussions). Again, there wasn’t much difference in their neuropsychological task performance. We also looked at their working memory task performance, and there were no differences in how well they performed. However, we did find differences in the brain regions they used while performing the tasks, and in white matter integrity in several white matter tracts.
This was an interesting study because we expected to find some cognitive effect of concussions so many decades after participation in football, but we didn’t find it. We did, however, find brain-based differences in the absence of any kind of cognitive difference. This suggests that 1) these individuals may be compensating for parts of the brain that sustained damage, and 2) they are working harder to overcome the minor damages that occurred over time to perform at the same level.
The study showed variability in how the brain and cognitive functions interact and that people with a history of concussions aren’t homogeneously impaired. There is so much variability in outcomes as people age in general, let alone when you add concussions to the equation. It was a good learning experience to see firsthand how these people looked, behaved, and interacted. It was a very different picture than what the media would suggest.
MCC: What excites you about the opportunity to come to the U-M Concussion Center?
EV: I realized going through my postdoc I wanted to get back into working on concussions with a multidisciplinary team. That was one of the big selling points for U-M Concussion Center and the School of Kinesiology because they provide a unique opportunity to work with a multidisciplinary group focusing on concussion research and education. This is essential to understanding concussion because there are so many aspects to the injury: the psychology around the sport, the injury itself, and the short-and-long-term neurological features. Having this multidisciplinary team where everyone can work on projects together or come up with batteries of assessments that can tap into a lot of different components to short- and long-term function is important for any concussion group.
Also, my background is in cognitive neuroscience. Having people who are experts in biomechanics and neuropsychological assessment is huge for me to comprehend the full magnitude of the injury and what it entails long-term.
MCC: What excites you about joining the School of Kinesiology?
EV: One of my primary interests as a cognitive neuroscientist is in using the tools we use to explore relationships between brain function and cognitive outcomes to probe mechanisms by which concussive injury may affect brain and cognitive function long-term. One of the things that hit home when I spoke with Dean (Lori) Ploutz-Snyder is that Kinesiology, as a field, supports the study of sports and movement science. There are so many aspects of sports that influence millions of people across our country, and it’s an interesting and important area of study. There is so much about researching sports and sports science that is important. The School of Kinesiology includes a diverse group of researchers exploring a variety of sports-related issues. It’s important in terms of health-based outcomes for kids and adults participating in sports, but also from an economic perspective on the types of opportunities that sports and athletic competitions can bring to cities and areas. It’s a fascinating way of bringing sports researchers together and gives them a home that supports the study of sport, movement, and athletics. The School of Kinesiology will be a great home for my research.
MCC: How can you take your research into concussion and aging and translate it to the general population?
EV: Moving forward, I want to look beyond collegiate and NFL players and study a more diverse sample of former athletes. Millions of people participate in sports at the youth, high school, and collegiate levels and have a fairly significant commitment to some kind of athletic event throughout their life. Concussions can affect people at any level of sports. A sports-related concussion is fundamentally different from a motor vehicle concussion, fall, or accident-based concussion. When looking at the long-term effects of concussions, it’s important to look at a more diverse sample of people who participated in athletics when they were younger or currently participate in a recreational league.
We’re learning about the effects concussions can have on the lives of athletes who played at a collegiate or professional level, but what gets lost are the people who played competitively when they were younger and stopped playing. Looking at more of that diversity in the athletic experience and the effects of concussions will be very important in terms of research going forward.