Westminster Junior Presents Concussion Research at Pro Bowl

Westminster student Rryzen Benson

April 18, 2017

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) has become one of the most widely publicized neurological disorders over the past several years, due in large part to the NFL and Will Smith’s 2015 movie, "Concussion." Time magazine recently published an article revealing a staggering statistic: 40 percent of former NFL players have suffered brain injuries throughout their careers.

Through his latest research, Westminster junior (and former high school football player), Ryzen Benson, is looking to decrease that statistic, and possibly prevent it altogether. Benson, who is also an assistant football coach at Highland High School, has been researching neck exercises as a way to prevent concussions. His findings not only confirmed his theory, but also earned him an invitation to present at the prestigious NFL Pro Bowl in January.

"I was at one of our parent-player meetings and our strength coach mentioned neck exercises. I was inspired to research them as a way to prevent concussions, especially since there were no statistics at a high-school level," Benson said.

Benson worked with his head coach to find local football teams to participate in his study, which eventually included Highland and four other Utah high schools. Two of the teams incorporated neck exercises into their football training, while the other three did not.

"All the coaches were super intrigued [by the study], especially since 'Concussion' came out," he added. "People are really reluctant to let their kids play sports, especially football. They think it's dangerous, and they disregard all the training we go through as coaches to prevent injuries.

During his study, Benson interviewed 106 football players at five high schools throughout the 2015 Utah high school football season. The interviews included information on players' medical histories, height and weight, athletic history and concussion symptoms.

"Out of all the people I interviewed, athletes who were lighter (weighed less) showed more statistical significance in our testing," Benson said. "Additionally, those teams that do not perform isometric neck exercises are 5.03 times more at risk of sustaining a concussion than those athletes who perform these exercises regularly."

Last month, Benson was invited to present his research to an audience of nearly 300 former NFL players, doctors, lawyers and students at a special health symposium hosted during the 2017 Pro Bowl at the University of Central Florida. As the only student invited to speak, the event opened the doors to several opportunities not typically offered to an undergraduate.

"There were a couple of people from University of Central Florida who were really interested in what I had to say and wanted me to apply to their Ph.D. programs," Benson said. "I was also offered an internship with a neurosurgeon—and I'm not even a pre-med student—so that was kind of cool. I also had a researcher from Florida who works with concussions approach me about joining on a study with him and a prestigious concussion doctor."

As a customized biomedical and translational research major, Benson's ultimate goal is to attend graduate school at Stanford University. Throughout his time at Westminster, his faculty have been very impressed with his determination and focus.

"Ryzen's thoroughness and application of his research in answering his hypothesis is very impressive," said Dr. John Contreras, associate professor in the Master of Public Health program and one of Benson's faculty advisors. "It's extremely rare for an undergraduate to have the opportunity to present at such a high-profile event like the NFL. He is a highly intellectual student who will no doubt reach his goals."

Over the next year, Benson will continue to work on his research and hopes to have it published in several scholarly journals.