Checking for concussion before and after a head injury

Brain concussion can result in symptoms ranging from mild to serious and it can also be an indicator of more serious damage. Quick action is required and that means quick detection is critical.

Auckland Bioengineering Institute researcher Dr Vickie Shim is working on a smartphone app that can check a person both before and after what’s called a mechanical hit to the head.

“The concept is quite simple. We measure the person’s eye movements, and these can tell us if there’s risk of concussion after a mechanical hit,” says Dr Shim. “Eyes are a good indicator of injury because their nerves run through the brain.”

While there are some eye-tracking devices on the market, Dr Shim says they’re generally bulky and expensive whereas a smartphone or tablet is low cost, mobile, and both have increasingly sophisticated cameras. These can be combined with existing eye-tracking systems such as those developed by Dr Jason Turuwhenua at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute.

MedTech CoRE has funded some of Dr Turuwhenua’s work and helped Dr Shim with a business model to support her approach to CSx, an Auckland-based technology company focused on managing concussion in sport.

“As a leader in this area, CSx aspires to offer the best-validated options for managing concussion. Partnering with the Auckland Bioengineering Institute will add to our knowledge and the eye-tracking tool has the potential to offer yet another validated tool,” says CSx CEO Ed Lodge.

Together, Dr Shim and CSx are setting up longitudinal studies with rugby players. “The players wear a thumbnail-sized sensor behind their ear. From this, we can measure any impact. We can also establish baselines and measure eye movement to detect any rise after any head impacts.”

The sensors are part of a multi-scaled framework involving MRIs, computational analysis, cell mechanical devices that will form a comprehensive model for predicting brain injuries. Using the latest machine learning technologies, Dr Shim and her team will then begin training this model with eye movement data that will help assess concussion for those at risk and measure it for those who’ve had a mechanical hit.

If the technology works as planned, Dr Shim says it could be customised to children and older people.

Brain damage varies from person to person and 80 percent of those with concussion heal themselves. Dr Shim hopes the studies with CSx will help limit irreversible cellular brain damage.

By Prue Scott

Dr Vickie Shim