Understanding the impact of sensation-seeking on concussion
May 25, 2021
By Andrew Moser
Spencer Liebel, a clinical neuropsychology postdoctoral fellow in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, is expanding his passion for sport related concussion research with Dr. Steve Broglio, director of the University of Michigan Concussion Center, and co-PI of CARE Consortium.
Liebel is the first author of the article “Sensation-Seeking and Impulsivity in Athletes with Sport-Related Concussion,” which seeks to understand how an individual’s sensation-seeking may influence their risk and incidence of sport-related concussion.
“We’re always trying to find ways to not only treat and manage concussions but also prevent them and the first step of doing that is the identification of risk factors,” Liebel said. “Identifying these risk factors can help us intervene with certain individuals to prevent concussions.”
Liebel describes sensation-seeking as an individual’s need for novel and exciting experiences that may also be inherently dangerous. He gave examples of someone jumping out of a plane, climbing Mt. Everest, or driving a race car.
Liebel used the Brief Sensation Seeking Scale (BSSS-8), which is a self-report questionnaire given as part of the CARE Consortium baseline assessment, to measure the degree to which an individual will seek out and engage in risk taking behavior. Participants were asked multiple questions such as whether they were more likely to want to go out versus stay in and if they would rather or rather not go bungee jumping. An individual’s answers are added together to determine their sensation-seeking score.
Overall, the study found that among those who participated in higher-contact sports like football or ice hockey had higher levels of sensation-seeking than those playing lower-contact sports like basketball. They also found very low levels of sensation-seeking in individuals who participated in non-contact sports like golf or track.
“What it showed us is even in the absence of concussion, sensation-seeking appears to be highest in those individuals who have a preference for higher-contact sports,” Liebel explained.
Liebel also discovered that, among CARE Consortium athletes, a one point increase in sensation-seeking conferred a 21% greater risk for having had a concussion prior to being enrolled in the study. When he used the CARE Consortium data to look at athletes who sustained a concussion during study participation, he found a one-point increase on the BSSS-8 resulted in a 28% greater risk of concussion.
“What we’re seeing is that sensation-seeking accounts for quite a bit of an individual’s proclivity for having both prior and future concussion,” he said.
According to Liebel, this study was the first-of-its-kind to explicitly examine sensation-seeking in collegiate athletes. “It had been measured in amatuer rugby teams in Australia and was used to look at substance abuse and sexual behavior in adolescents, but this was the first to look at collegiate athletes with or without concussion,” Liebel said.
This isn’t the only concussion work he has done during his time at U-M. He helped study the efficacy of computer based assessments (led by PhD student Lauren Czerniack, PhD from Michigan’s Industrial and Operations Engineering) and found that they are comparable but still must be used as part of a broader assessment protocol.
For Liebel, studying concussion goes hand-in-hand with the field of neuropsychology. He said that a neuropsychological exam is already a component of a concussion assessment, and as a neuropsychologist, he is drawn to people suffering from traumatic brain injuries. He knew he wanted to go into the field after taking a behavior neurology class during his undergraduate studies and saw a clear way to marry his scientific interests with his passion for sports.
After he finishes his postdoctoral residency, Liebel will join the faculty at the University of Utah’s Department of Neurology and the Traumatic Brain Injury and Concussion Center where he will continue to conduct concussion research and contribute to the clinical care of athletes.