David Zax

A View from David Zax

How A Tablet App Could Help Diagnose Concussions

Fighting concussions. There’s an app for that.

  • February 19, 2013

The Wyss Institute, at Harvard, has developed a tablet application that, among other things, could help diagnose concussions on the sidelines of a football match. Wyss reports on the findings on its site (and in the Journal of Gerontology); CNET and others have taken also taken note.

The goal of the app is to bring hard data to a realm that’s traditionally been fairly subjective: diagnosing neuromuscular deficits. Wouldn’t it be nice, Wyss Institute researchers reckoned, if we could be a little bit more precise in assessing these deficits?

To that end, the researchers created an application implemented on a Panasonic tablet with a stylus. At root, it’s a simple tracing exercise. A patient is asked to use a stylus to follow a moving target around a circle. Proprietary algorithms measure to what extent a patient deviates from the proper path. Administer this test to a quarterback who just got sacked, in theory, and instead of vague subjective answers, now you can actually have a numerical score that’s something of a window into his brain state.

The tech could be useful not only on the NFL sidelines, but also in doctor’s offices everywhere. Said one of the researchers, Leia Stirling, who led the study: “One day it might sit next to the thermometer and pressure cuff in the doctor’s office….Just as your blood pressure is recorded during every visit, so could your neuromuscular score be tracked over time to determine progress through recovery and rehabilitation.”

Stirling’s team is in early stages yet; for now, they’ve only collected baseline data on how healthy people trace these circles. The next step is to get a pool of data on how people with neuromuscular pathologies do so. “The team is currently conducting a study with athletes in the Boston area to determine the sensitivity of the technology in diagnosing concussions,” says Wyss.

Concussion-fighting tech is a longstanding subject in the pages of Technology Review (not to mention in the annals of college and pro football in general, a brutal sport at a moral crossroads). In 2007, Emily Singer reported on a test to spot concussions in athletes; some years after that, she deepened her reporting with this look at a device that could detect concussions on the football field. Brittany Sauser in 2011 wrote about the need to refine research into which helmets offered the best concussion protection; that same year, I took a look at how “smart mouthguards” could help contribute to the solution of what is ultimately, in some respects, a data problem.

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