As Prescribed: New technology aims to measure impact of concussions


SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – Athletics can be great for health and fitness, but sports – including youth sports – are also associated with a very real risk. Recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data found that more than 16% students who played on a sport team reported concussions.

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A headset patented by UCSF could change the way these concussions are measured and treated, a step in making sports safer for athletes. Neurologist Wade S. Smith, MD joined KCBS Radio’s Alice Wertz on “As Prescribed” to discuss the new technology.

He explained that the current approach for treating concussions relies on a subjective assessment of patients.

“What we’re doing is asking the person, how do you feel? Do you feel okay? And that is, as we call a subjective term, because they interpret that how they want,” said Smith, who serves as the director of neurovascular science at UCSF health. “Let’s say that [a] student athlete is star of the football team and they’re going to be playing their major game coming up. And then in practice, they had a concussion… it puts the individual athlete at conflict.”

Symptoms of a concussion can include: dizziness, nausea, confusion, clumsiness, memory loss and more. Some concussions can be mild and others can be very serious. It can be hard to tell the severity of a concussion based on symptoms alone.

With a concussion, there is also increased risk of subsequent head injuries, according to UCSF. A rare condition called second impact syndrome can result in immediate brain death and the lingering impact of recent concussions, such as clumsiness, can leave athletes vulnerable to further injury.

However, with the new UCSF patent, clinicians no longer have to solely rely on self-reporting and observations when determining if athletes should get back on the court or field.

“You can do one lab test now in the first 12 hours to confirm that they had a concussion, but you only know they had a concussion,” Smith said. “The question is, is your brain still abnormal? And can we use that as a measure? And that’s what this device does.”

He described the device, which has been licensed by MindRhythm, as a headband that has a sensitive sensor in it. This sensor measures force, specifically the force of the heartbeat on a patient’s head and how much their head vibrates after the suspected concussion.

“That vibration is tells us about the state of the brain,” Smith explained. “And we find that in people who have had a concussion that their brain is wiggling or resonating at a higher frequency. This isn't something that the person feels, but we can detect it.”

Using this data, athletes, coaches, parents and medical professionals can make better informed decisions regarding when athletes can return to play. According to UCSF, brain changes detected by the headset lasted 12 days longer on average than the athletes reported symptoms, based on research published in JAMA Network Open last month.

“Although not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the device could fill an important niche among athletes, clinicians, trainers and coaches, who are concerned about the long-term effects of repeated sports-related concussions,” said UCSF. “These include chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.”

You can also listen to last week’s “As Prescribed” discussion about climate change and public health here.

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