SPECIAL REPORT: UNI professor working on device that could help - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

SPECIAL REPORT: UNI professor working on device that could help prevent CTE

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CEDAR FALLS (KWWL) -

A picture. A smile. A face.

It doesn't always tell the story of what was really going on. 

UNI rugby coach Steve Murra, known for his energy and humor, took his own life about two years ago on February 20th.

Murra was known for making people laugh and always having a good time. But towards the end of his life, his wife noticed things started to change.

"He was what I called a Type-B person; super calm, relaxed, and nothing got him worked up," Jennifer Murra says."It was a complete flip flop of a person. He went from never being angry to being angry all the time."

But now there's something we rarely hear about with suicide: An answer.

After his death, Steve's brain was sent to Boston University. They confirmed he had CTE, a brain disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive head trauma.

"Steve didn't do this; CTE did," says Jennifer. "His frontal lobe was shrinking. He was basically turning more and more animal-like."

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is a degenerative brain disorder that researchers know little about.

It can't be fully diagnosed until someone dies, and its symptoms include dementia and depression.

Rugby had been a part of Steve's life for years.

He played on the Iowa Falls Rugby Club, and then later started the rugby team at UNI.

He eventually lead the rugby team to the National Championships twice. 

A quick look at practice, and you can tell rugby is a full- body contact sport. 

Research shows those repetitive blows to the head that don't necessarily lead to a diagnosed concussion, may be a cause of CTE. 

UNI Associate Professor Mark Hecimovich said, "Often times, players will go through a full season, or a full career even, without ever having been tested for a concussion. But we know that they are getting some sort of impact. It's those small impacts to the head, and to the brain, that we are looking at."

He, along with a team from all over the world, has been working on a device he hopes could one day test for smaller, less noticeable brain injuries.

The device would use what's known as the King Devick Test. Athletes would read a sequence of numbers from left to right. Meanwhile, the device would measure their eye movements and brain activity.

The goal is for the device to eventually be turned into an app that parents or coaches could use on the sidelines.

"That way you could have it on your iPhone, and after a game, you can test your son or daughter, and see how they are doing," Hecimovich says.

UNI is testing this device on students involved in youth sports.  They're doing this in the Division of Athletic Training. Ian Murra, who plays flag football, has been involved in the study. He hopes to honor his dad and raise awareness of CTE.

Of course, Ian's dad is not the only victim of this disease. The NFL has been grappling with the CTE-related suicide of Aaron Hernandez.

And right now, there is currently an app already available for people to buy. The current app tests the speed of eye movement in athletes after suspected head injuries.  But at UNI, Hecimovich says they are hoping to take this app to the next level, and they want to be able to measure for the more subconcussive impacts. UNI is working to measure not just eye movement, but also brain activity. 

This is a project that will take at least 3 to 5 more years of research. If you would like to learn more, and if you're interested in getting involved, you can reach out to:

Mark Hecimovich, PhD, ATC
Associate Professor
Division of Athletic Training
University of Northern Iowa
003C Human Performance Center
Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0244
Phone: 319.273.6477       

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Previous Story:

CTE after years of playing Rugby. 

KWWL asked the current UNI rugby coach, Megan Flann, how rugby could lead to CTE. 

She says, "In rugby, we don't wear any helmets or pads. That expose can really play a big role in getting CTE."

Jennifer says, "So in rugby, you hit your head on the ground, you hit your head on other people's knees, and other people's heads constantly. It's the constant blows to the head. 

Now the team and family are coming together, encouraging others to donate their brains. 

They also want others to realize that CTE is not just associated with football. 

If you would like to learn more about Steve's story or how to one day donate your brain, click on this link: https://concussionfoundation.org/story/my-legacy-jennifer-steve-murra-rugby

KWWL asked UNI about Steve Murra and the rugby team. Below is their statement:

Coach Murra volunteered as the Coach of the Women's Rugby club at UNI for more than 20 years and was well recognized in the national Rugby community.  His devotion and longevity to the sport and the Women who played for him is unmatched among collegiate rugby programs.   

He can be credited for not only recruiting women to UNI but also helping in the retention efforts of those that were considering transfer or withdrawing from school. 

This is amazing for someone who was not a UNI employee.  In addition to exposing hundreds of women to a sport they did not know before attending UNI, Coach Murra worked tirelessly to provide additional opportunities to the UNI players on regional and national elite squads representing the United States in international competition.  

Coach Murra is dearly missed by many inside and outside the Rugby community and will always noted in the history of UNI Recreation Services.  

Like any sport, the potential of injury does exist.  The sport is regulated by USA Rugby which works to ensure the safety of play through consistent review of rules.  At UNI, our Rugby clubs are supported by an Athletic Training services and have coaches teaching proper technique.  

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