I've got concussions on the brain this week (fortunately, no concussions on my own brain), and, so it seems, do a lot of digital health technology developers.
While taking in a heated rivalry game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night, I had the misfortune of witnessing Chicago star Marian Hossa lying motionless on the ice for several seconds after taking an elbow to the head from Vancouver's Jannik Hansen. The National Hockey League on Wednesday suspended Hansen for one game, but we don't yet know Hossa's condition. Regardless, Hossa was the last person anyone in the building wanted to see sprawled out like that.
Last April, Hossa had his season ended by a severe concussion, the result of an illegal hit by Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes, a play that earned Torres a 21-game suspension. Hossa was not medically cleared to play hockey again until December, seven months after the injury.
Add Hossa to the long list of athletes who have suffered traumatic head injuries. Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Chris Henry, Dave Duerson and Terry Long are all dead, the result of neurological diseases or suicides said to be caused by concussion-related depression. And that is just from pro football.
Unfortunately, concussions have become a major part of sports at all levels, from professionals all the way down to youth leagues. There may not be a way for digital technology to prevent initial head injuries – that's going to take rule changes, behavioral adjustments and perhaps better protective equipment – but some advances are helping diagnose concussions much faster and even lead to new insights about neuroscience.
In his State of the Union address this month, President Obama alluded to a brain-mapping project that we learned more about in news reports over the weekend. According to the New York Times, the National Institutes of Health will lead a decade-long project to create a comprehensive map of the human brain, much like the Human Genome Project unlocked secretes about genetics.
"Scientists with the highest hopes for the project also see it as a way to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses," the Times reported. This is particularly exciting for me since I lost my father to multiple system atrophy, a rare neurological disorder for which the cause is unknown, but any breakthroughs on that front could be a decade or more away.
Of more immediate interest to neurologists, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, along with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston-based Hebrew SeniorLife, this month shared news of a software tool informally called NeuroAssess. This tablet app helps quantify neuromuscular performance, a metric that historically has only been assessed qualitatively.
The creators are already testing the app for diagnosing concussions in athletes, and they see future applications in assessing other neuromuscular disorders such as multiple sclerosis.
At first glance, this seems like a more advanced spin of a 99-cent Apple iOS and Android app I saw at 2012 International CES called Concussion Recognition and Response. This product from PAR of Lutz, Fla., walks coaches and parents of young athletes through a checklist of concussion signs and symptoms, following protocols adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Concussions in Youth Sports initiative. The app also features a home symptom monitor for follow-up care and a workout routine to help injured athletes return to action.
Sensors are also taking their place in the fight against brain injury and illness. Device maker MC10 is joining with Reebok to market wearable monitoring devices, including a mesh skull cap that will measure the force of impact when athletes get hit. (Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that the skull cap detected "signs" of a concussion, but an MC10 spokesperson stressed to MobiHealthNews that the device will not diagnose concussions.)
During Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, 2012, New England Patriots running back BenJarvis Green-Ellis wore a specialized chin strap to monitor how hard he was hit throughout the game. "The impact sensing device, which was developed by Battle Sports Science, includes 'microsensor and software technology' that measures the G-force and duration of force to determine the likelihood of concussion. If the sensor calculates that a concussion is likely the chin strap begins to glow red," MobiHealthNews reported a year ago.
This is all fascinating technology and wonderful news for athletes who don't want to suffer with debilitating brain damage later in life, as some of the deceased ex-National Football Leaguers did. After all, concussion damage can be permanent. Now if only pro athletes would stop hitting their opponents in the head.