One of the biggest health concerns in sport — at both the amateur and professional levels — is the damage caused by concussions arising from head impacts. Part of the challenge is that there is not a lot of data about how much impact is enough to cause a concussion, or what the cumulative effects are of many small impacts. Evaluation protocols attempt to determine whether a player has been injured, but it can be difficult to get reliable information from a player who does not want to be sidelined.
Researchers at the Indiana University School of Optometry believe that they have a solution. Drawing on data from more than 1,000 athletes — including 69 cases of concussion — they have identified eye movement and balance performance impairment that accompanies a concussion. By comparing measurements on the field with prior baseline results, physicians and trainers can make more accurate assessments. The results are most accurate if they can be obtained within 10 minutes of the impact. The researchers have created a “shoebox-sized” set of goggles that can track eye movement. Their system also measures balance using a sensor platform developed from the Nintendo Wii gaming system. The system has the advantage that it relies on objective data, making it difficult for an athlete to conceal impairment from sideline staff.
A shoebox is still rather large, but given the rapid advancement (and cost reduction) in VR goggles that also contain motion detectors, it’s conceivable that we could soon see a single, head-worn system that could track both eye movement and balance quickly and accurately. And while the Indiana University data set is still too small to be statistically valid, according to the researchers, early indications are strong and more data is being gathered. It is possible that rapid and accurate detection of concussions in sports — and other settings — may become widely available before too long.