Virtual reality headset assesses brain injury

Biomedical engineers have built a device to quickly detect mild traumatic brain injury in the heat of sports competition, on the battlefield, in the emergency room, and in other situations where time is of the essence.

On the football field or in the hockey rink, for instance, players with a mild concussion could suffer permanent brain damage or even death from a second hit. But competitors often resume play, and assume risk, after answering a few questions from the coach.

A clear diagnosis of mild tramautic brain injury usually requires a quiet room and an hour or more of testing, which is impossible in many situations.

Now a biomedical engineer and an expert in emergency medicine have collaborated on a portable device that can zero in on problems associated with concussions in about seven minutes in virtually any setting.

Michelle LaPlaca, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and David Wright, assistant director of Emory University’s Emergency Medicine Research Center, developed DETECT, for display enhanced testing for concussions and mild traumatic brain injury.

The device includes software, a portable computer, a video-game-type controller, earphones, and headgear with a video display. It blocks light and sound that could interfere with its operation.

People with mild brain injury will struggle with certain mental tasks that draw on different areas of the brain, such as working memory and complex reactions. DETECT’s bank of neuropsysiological tests is designed to assess performance of these brain functions.

Because DETECT is automated, it can be operated by a coach, parent, soldier or other layperson. It has been tested in the laboratory and in a hospital emergency room, and the researchers are hoping that the Georgia Tech football program will also give it a try.

More than 750,000 mild traumatic brain injuries occur each year in the United States. Many are sports related. Second impact injuries can lead to permanent damage or possibly death, a risk associated with misdiagnosis of the initial injury.

LaPlaca and Wright plan to commercialize the technology. With special software, it could be used for cognitive testing related to other mental conditions or diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

LaPlaca received a Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Research Grant in 1999 for work on biomechanics and the nervous system.

From Whitaker Foundation

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