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Research, Athletics


A unique partnership between UNL research and athletics is forging a new model for health and performance research.

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With the expansion of Memorial Stadium, university leaders recognized an opportunity to bring top researchers under one roof to study the biological underpinnings of behavior and performance. Their work could lead to discoveries about brain function, head injury and human performance that benefit athletics and broader society.

The East Stadium addition includes the 28,200-square-foot UNL Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior and the 24,191-square-foot Nebraska Athletics Performance Lab. A bridge connects the facilities, encouraging collaborations.

“This extraordinary collaboration bridges not only academics and athletics but also the broader healthcare community …”

– Judith Burnfield

The brain center’s director, UNL psychologist Dennis Molfese, and the performance lab’s director, rehabilitation physical therapist Judith Burnfield, are at the center of this partnership. Their groups share data gathered from the brain center’s brain-imaging equipment and the performance lab’s sophisticated motion-tracking sensors, creating a more complete picture of what influences behavior and performance.

“This extraordinary collaboration bridges not only academics and athletics but also the broader healthcare community to improve athletes’ performance and safety well beyond their collegiate years,” Burnfield said. “The knowledge, therapeutic and technological innovations emerging from this work will undoubtedly ripple across the nation.”


Judith Burnfield and Dennis Molfese

Molfese, a concussion researcher, said the strong relationship with athletics has strengthened his efforts to understand how sports-related head injuries affect behavior, emotions and cognition. By working with Molfese, Nebraska Athletics hopes to learn more about evaluating injury, boosting safety and helping athletes safely return to play after being hurt. Findings have potential to influence collegiate athletics nationwide and change long-term approaches to dealing with all types of head injuries.

Helping athletes build their skills is one of the performance lab’s goals. Burnfield’s team uses brain images, movement analysis and eye-tracking information obtained during athletic conditioning and combines this with performance data to learn how players make split-second decisions. This information also could aid broader brain research, especially expanding knowledge about how injury affects cognitive skills.

“Putting good people together leads to good things,” UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said. “Brain and performance research on student-athletes directly translates into advances for the public at large. Integrating athletics and academic research in this unprecedented partnership positions UNL to become a national leader in this important area.”