In a finding that exposes just how aggressively, misleadingly, and perniciously ImPACT concussion management software is being marketed, Concussion Inc. has uncovered ImPACT and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center documents advising potential purchasers that not even baseline neurocognitive tests are needed in order to safely use their expensive, for-profit product.
Though some lay readers might be tempted to slough off this development or allow their own eyes to glaze over the technical arcana, it is difficult to overstate its importance. Baseline testing is the holy grail, the sine qua non, of the “concussion awareness” pushed by the National Football League and used as a legal fig leaf by high school officials who don’t understand the problem – either willfully or because they are confused or powerless in the face of an astronomically popular sport that is silently maiming a generation of American youth.
The evidence, as usual, is hiding in plain sight. Examples:
I don’t think UPMC and ImPACT would be able to find many, if any, experts who were not already on their payroll who would be willing to assert that a “normative database” could responsibly substitute for individual baseline tests. Young people’s brains are still growing and changing, and their responses to standardized tests fluctuate year to year, even month to month, with variances that make the UPMC and ImPACT claims here almost criminally unsupportable.
(All of this is not even to get to the general flaws of subjective neurocognitive tests, which have already been widely discussed: the reality that test-takers sandbag the baseline tests with deliberately dumb answers, and boost their scores on repeat tests with the help of Ritalin.)
ImPACT owners Dr. Joseph Maroon and Mark Lovell, and UPMC Concussion Program spokeswoman Susan Manko, did not respond to my requests for comment. That is par for the course.
Equally disturbing is that Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University also did not respond to a query submitted through the BU Medical Center’s spokeswoman, Maria Ober. Sources inside the concussion-research world tell me that Cantu privately disparages ImPACT’s hype; according to one source, Cantu was appalled that UPMC and ImPACT make the claim that you can get away with not even conducting baseline tests (which are labor-intensive and expensive, and a deal-breaker for many high school athletic departments on the fence over whether to buy the product).
But as with Cantu’s murky call for an end to youth tackle football – a recommendation floated in a Boston television interview, then recanted on ESPN’s Outside the Lines – his work and voice have become too detached, political, and beholden to the NFL establishment in order to have the kind of “impact” we all really need in the public debate over the future of collision sports involving young people.