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Inexpensive Brain Scans Could Catch Concussions

A former hockey player founded a company to give athletes and families a better way to identify brain injuries.

Kelly Gee knows all too well the devastating effects of concussion. A former minor-league hockey player, he says that repeated concussions cut his playing career short. Then, while he was coaching for the Chicago Steel junior-league team, a puck struck him between the eyes—an injury he thinks caused severe depression. “After that my whole life fell apart,” he says. He went to dozens of doctors in a variety of specialties but ultimately found few options for tracking and treating the effects of his injury.

brain illustration
Danger within: A brain map identifies injuries from a concussion.

That, he says, pushed him to found Quantum Institute, a company that now offers a mobile brain scan for concussions. Gee hopes it will help athletes and their families better identify brain injuries and track their recovery. Currently, concussions can be identified on the sidelines by physicians and athletic trainers who run through a series of questions like “What’s your name?” and watch for other signs that a player is dazed or disoriented. But these tests can miss some injuries, and not all teams have the budgets to keep medical experts at the ready.

Quantum Institute’s first product is a brain-mapping system based on electroencephalography, or EEG. This test, commonly used to monitor neurological disorders like epilepsy, detects electrical activity in the brain through sensors placed on the scalp. Gee’s company uses quantitative EEG, which includes computer-aided analysis of the wave patterns in the scan.

This technology has a mixed history and is often done incorrectly, says Marc Nuwer, a neurophysiologist with the Brain Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is not involved with the new company.

But this kind of brain test is well suited to identifying the often subtle injury of concussion, which are caused when the brain slams against the skull. Though other methods, like CAT scans, can detect anatomical changes that may be associated with more severe brain injury, concussions don’t usually cause those kinds of changes. A test for concussion needs to be able to detect changes in brain function, and quantitative EEG, when done correctly, can provide an objective measure of brain activity. This could be particularly valuable for team doctors or trainers who are under pressure to get a player back in the game after a blow to the head, says Nuwer, who has served as a neurologist for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. Such a test could help bolster an argument that a player should stay out.

An important key to making the technology suitable for identifying concussion is to have a baseline measurement, says Nuwer, since the brain activity signals picked up in an EEG test can vary greatly from person to person. Quantum Institute’s test does start with a baseline—a three-dimensional map of brain activity made before an athlete’s season starts. Then, if the player later gets hit, he or she could get scanned again to look for changes in brain function. This test could happen on the sidelines, in a training facility, or at a doctor’s office.

The test takes about half an hour or less, says Gee. Twenty electrodes on the scalp measure brain activity while the athlete sits in a chair. The software can then confirm whether there is a concussion and identify its location and severity, he says.

The startup has run about 300 tests on hockey players in the Chicago area since it began offering its concussion-detecting technology to teams there in October, Gee says. He says the company will offer the test nationally late this year.

Gee wants the test to be available to all athletes, even kids, and he believes that at $100 to $150 per scan, it will be readily affordable. “Our mission is to make sure that there is nobody out there that takes a second guess if they could afford to have the test,” he says.

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