Profile: Dr Stephanie Adams
Published on 28th August 2023 by Editorial
At the intersection of Sport Science and Psychology: meet Scottish Brain Sciences’ Head of Sports Science.
With a Master’s in Cognitive Psychology and a PhD specialising in sport related concussions, Dr Stephanie Adams is looking to collaborate across Scottish Brain Sciences to advance research and practice – and says the potential link between sports concussions and dementia is central to this:
“My background includes sports psychology, so for the last decade, that has been my focus, spanning neuropsychology, but always focusing on how we can improve awareness of concussions as well as the benefits of (safe) lifelong participation in physical activity.”
In the landmark Lancet paper on dementia prevention, traumatic brain injury (TBI) is cited as one of the key risk factors we can influence, as is physical inactivity.
Stephanie says all aspects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) across the broader population need to be understood better, but it is in sport that the potential links between TBI and long-term brain health that have become increasingly prominent:
“My role means that I’ll be focusing on how we can create research trials and education work that’s focusing on athlete populations which is a really topical area, particularly with potential risk of neurodegenerative disease being potentially higher in former elite athletes.”
Stephanie adds that within the “ever-evolving landscape”, the attitudes to head injury have changed too:
“There’s a massive cultural element too. Decades ago, we used to think that concussion’s just a knock to the head and now we know more.
“There are things we can do to prevent concussion, things we can do to reduce risk – and part of that is improving education around brain injury and around brain health too.
“Concussion is one part of this whole puzzle that affects our brain health – a very prominent one that’s relevant to sporting populations.”
She explains that some of her work in education around brain health focuses on changing attitudes and behaviour but says for many having direct experience with TBI hugely shifts perspectives and health behaviours.
Dr Adams adds that while most concussions recover in a few weeks, others take months or years, and awareness is key in reducing prolonged negative outcomes:
“The more we can do to educate individuals about brain health and concussion and the better we do it, hopefully that helps reduce disease down the line.
“It’s about taking a preventative approach and empowering people and organisations to make tiny changes in what they do based on what we know now.”
Personal experience and collaborations
As a former competitive horse-rider in her native Canada, Stephanie says she was fortunate to be surrounded by a team that knew a lot about concussion who took it seriously and knew the risks when she herself was injured:
“I had a really positive experience in being supported after having a concussion as a horseback rider and when I moved here to study, I started to notice an opportunity to bring more awareness into the space that I was working.
“Then being able to work alongside mentors like Craig [Ritchie], I think just the passion that people like him bring to the topic, speaks volumes. We share a passion and interest in dementia prevention, and there’s a lot of synergy between the studies of brain health and TBI.”
Stephanie has worked with Professor Ritchie previously on dementia projects in Scotland:
“I was really excited by the opportunity to make positive disruption in the space with Craig and all the individuals that were coming on board – it was just a really good group of human beings that I believed could make some change.
“And we’re coming from a strong academic place with a strong evidence base, which is really important in this area.”
She says in Scottish Brain Sciences, the multidisciplinary team “cross-collaborate continuously” allowing for wider collaborations:
“Here we’re creating systems from the ground up meaning we can innovate in how we work together.
“In the office there are nurses, psychologists, doctors, and that hallway flexibility to run into all these other areas is really exciting.”
Stephanie says Scotland is an important centre for research, citing the University of Glasgow’s Professor Willie Stewart as being at the forefront of TBI research.
She adds that longer-term studies will help answer many outstanding questions and, clinically, working with the Scottish Rugby Union’s brain health clinic has provided a glimpse of the future:
“Just being able to see the positive impact of this sort of “brain health MOT” for individuals where we can get clear, tangible actions.
“Someone might learn they have high blood pressure or high cholesterol through this and then hopefully, through change in lifestyle, tweaks to their behaviour, what they eat, we could see huge benefits for brain health and in prevention down-the-line.”
Meanwhile, for concussion, she hopes the research landscape over the next decade will see simpler diagnosis taking advantage of innovative technologies and to better manage concussion.
Stephanie says the work on sport-related concussion is part of understanding – and redrawing – a bigger brain health picture:
“I can’t help but think to the likes of my mother-in-law. Her parents both have Alzheimer’s disease and there’s a genetic risk there and she’s quite young, she’s just 60.
“My hope for the future is there’s something from the research we’re doing that we know what exactly we can do to help reduce her risk significantly.
“To get everybody there, hopefully, so everyone in Scotland could have some sort of brain health MOT from mid-life or even earlier, to start to understand the clear, personalised, risk factors that are relevant to each of us.
“There’s just so much potential to do something incredible for the future.”
Read more: Dementia: a treatable condition of midlife; Redefining clinical meaningfulness; Scotland to host second world brain health summit; Chief Scientist calls for more research volunteers; Strategy for Brain Health
This article was contributed by the editorial team at healthandcare.scot