VR headset spots concussion


You've had a blow to the head, but how do you know whether you are concussed or not? The answer could be a matter of life or death, yet it takes hours of testing by professionals to know for sure.

Now a virtual-reality headset is being developed that can diagnose the extent of a head injury within minutes. Non-medical personnel will use it to quickly gauge the extent of brain damage, and the system works in noisy emergency rooms, on the battlefield or at the side of a sports field. It can also pick up early signs for dementia.

For someone suffering even mild concussion, a second blow to the head can be fatal or lead to permanent disability. "Yet detailed neuropsychological assessment in an emergency room or on the football field is impossible to accomplish," says Jeffrey Lewine at the Hoglund Brain Imaging Center at the University of Kansas.

That is where a VR device called DETECT comes in. The name stands for "display enhanced testing for concussion and mild traumatic brain injury", a portable diagnostic tool being developed by biomedical engineer Michelle LaPlaca at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, and David Wright, assistant director of the Emergency Medicine Research Center at nearby Emory University.

The person who has suffered the blow wears a VR headset, plus headphones, and is given a device similar to a video game controller to operate. The system puts the wearer through an array of neuropsychological tests designed to pick up reduced reaction times and deficits in working memory, conditions that would indicate injuries to different parts of the brain.

The wearer sees groups of words, flashing white squares that change positions, and a series of shapes with different colours and patterns. At the same time, instructions are flashed up on the VR display while verbal commands are given through the headphones. The wearer responds to the commands by pressing one of two buttons on the controller.

By measuring reactions times in a battery of tests, the system is designed to detect even mild cognitive deficits associated with concussion or early dementia. DETECT completes its tests in about 7 minutes. Conventional cognitive tests require hours of testing and trained personnel to administer them, and score and interpret the results.

"Commercially available computer tasks designed to evaluate the cognitive effects of concussion are limited in their ability to predict 'real-world' performance," says John Woodard, a psychologist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago, Illinois. "DETECT represents a new generation of assessment technology for evaluating the effects of brain injury."

Researchers at Emory University are testing the system in emergency rooms and plan to further evaluate it at athletic events. It is expected to be commercially available within three to five years.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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