Sensing Brain Injuries

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Smarter helmets could lead to rapid detection of concussions.

The year is 2015; the new quarterback for the Clairmont High School Gladiators is about to attempt a 20-yard pass. He arches his arm, but before he can throw he’s sacked by a 300-pound defensive lineman from the opposing Washington Tigers. There’s a hush in the stands as the QB lies immobile on the 30-yard line. It was a hard hit. Finally, he rises to his feet, and the crowd erupts in applause. He prepares for the next snap, but he stops as the coach and a team of paramedics rush the field.

Unbeknownst to the quarterback, a sensor in his helmet has detected an abnormality in his brain-wave activity, indicating a concussion. He is led from the field. The Gladiators lose the game, but the young quarterback is spared a far worse injury and is able to play again later (much against his mother’s wishes).

Hashem Ashrafiuon, an engineering professor at Villanova University, is working on a sensor headset system to make the above scenario a reality. The system he’s developing—with colleagues from Brain Computer Interface Inc. and Wisconsin University—uses a single electrode to measure electromagnetic brain waves, or EEG. The data is transmitted via Bluetooth.

headset2.jpg

Ashrafiuon hopes this system will soon replace the conventional impact tests that high-school sports programs use to determine head injury. In these tests, players are asked a series of memory questions before they’re allowed to play sports. This establishes a baseline. When a player receives a brutal hit, he or she is asked a similar set of memory questions. A change in responses can indicate concussion.

“Not very scientific, in my opinion,” Ashrafiuon says of the test.

Getting actual brain-wave readings immediately after impact is essential to detecting brain damage because concussion symptoms can vanish quickly. “The sooner we can get an EEG recording, the better our estimate of [the impact’s] severity should be,” he tells THE FUTURIST.

Ashrafiuon expresses optimism that the headset will be used to diagnose concussion soon. The system has already been used for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Brain EEG is simply a signal,” he says. “It has frequency content or wavelength just like radio waves. Alzheimer’s disease patients generally start losing ‘power’ in some of the higher frequency bands and have instead more ‘power’ in lower frequency bands.”

Other potential uses for the headset monitor include early detection of posttraumatic stress disorder and autism.

—Patrick Tucker

Source: Hashem Ashrafiuon, Villanova University, www.villanova.edu.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2012

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