Technology with attitude

University of Nebraska working on a brain-scanning device to allow 10-minute concussion test

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It’s not the first time we are reporting on a device that would allow to determine within minutes if a football player has sustained a concussion. The day is coming when players who take a hit to the head will come to the sideline, take off their helmet and slip on an electrode-covered mesh cap.

On the spot, the team’s medical staff will analyze the player’s brain waves and determine within minutes whether he can safely return to the game or whether he has sustained a concussion and, if so, how severe.

Putting the finishing touches on that device is among the projects planned in the University of Nebraska’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior (CB3), which opens this month in Memorial Stadium’s newly expanded east side.

“There has been great concussion research that’s been going on for decades,” said Dennis Molfese, the CB3 director. “It’s disconcerting to realize just how little we really know.”

CB3’s main attraction is a type of magnetic resonance imaging machine — known as a functional MRI — that tracks the brain’s blood flow. It’s hoped the $3 million scanner helps in the effort to better define what is and is not a concussion.

“There’s no question it’s going to move the dial forward,” NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said. “The big, hoped-for dream would be, let’s have a biomarker in brain imaging. If you’re to the left of that, you’re safe; if you’re to the right of it, you’re not. That’s probably a few years out. But functional brain imaging and blood flow are going to be a very important part of that.”

The MRI machine also can be used on game days to assess injuries of all kinds.

Molfese said the sideline concussion assessment tool would be the first of what he hopes are many groundbreaking developments to come out of CB3. The device would allow medical personnel to go beyond the standard practice of asking the injured athlete questions and judge, based on his or her answers, whether it’s safe for him or her to return to a game.

If a linebacker took a hit to the head, he would come to the sideline and have an electrode net placed over his head. Battery-powered brain-recording equipment would measure the player’s responses to stimuli.

“We can get an idea of what area of the brain is being involved in the process, whether the speed of processing is at the rate it should be,” Molfese said. “The different areas of the brain that normally integrate information quickly stop doing that, so that’s another way we should be able to pick up whether there is an injury or not.”

Molfese said the device, which should be ready for use within one to two years, eventually could be used in hospitals to screen patients for head injuries.