Concussions are the big monster that hangs around any kind of contact sport, and as the number of sports-related head trauma cases ticks up across North America, so does concussion research, prevention, and management. In fact it’s becoming a growing industry.
In B.C., research is being done to examine the long- and short-term impact of concussions at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver General Hospital and through private companies.
Research has shown the long-term impact of concussions and their relationship to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Symptoms of CTE can include memory loss, aggression, confusion, depression, and suicidal tendencies, which can occur years or decades after the trauma.
The number of reported concussions in youth has been steadily rising, according to Statistics Canada. As many as 23 per cent of adolescents reported having sustained a head injury within the previous year.
But researchers and inventors alike are hoping the recent spotlight thrown on one contact sport, football, will help prevent or, if necessary, decrease the mismanagement of serious head injuries.
For the past two years, 35 members of the UBC football team have been wearing a sensor, called an xPatch, behind their ears, that charts the intensity of hits to the head. Jean-Sébastien Blouin, an associate professor at UBC’s School of Kinesiology and lead researcher on the project, hopes it will give people more answers on how exactly concussions take place.
“Once you have a sensor that’s valid and gives you credible information on the head impacts, then you can get at…is there a threshold? Is there a certain acceleration to the head that you should pull a player from play and assess them?” asks Blouin. “Or is it more that you have to have a number of impacts that happen within a certain framework, and then you need to look at the player?”
Alex Rebchuk, a Masters of Science student working for Blouin, says it was great to be able to work with the UBC football team and that they are currently sorting through all the data they gathered regarding the xPatch and the long-term changes in the neurocognitive responses of the athletes. The expected report on the study will be released in the next few months.
In December, UBC PhD student Harrison Brown and MBA graduate Kerry Costello launched the first mobile health application that allows athletic trainers and sports doctors to perform concussion assessments on the sidelines. HeadCheck Health runs both baseline and post-injury concussion assessments via a wireless headband that can sense the athlete’s movements during a balance test and give athletic trainers or clinicians the ability to track athletes’ overall concussion health, and provide instant information to compare current and past test performances. Based on the gold standard of assessing sport concussions, HeadCheck Health measures symptoms, neurocognitive function, and balance. So far 31 Canadian sports teams are using HeadCheck.
Former B.C. Lion Angus Reid, is helping develop and promote new technology that he hopes will reduce the number of concussions in football. Reid says the technology, called BrainShield, is developed by Shield-X Technology and SFU researchers and is the world’s first functional helmet decal. The decal can be attached on to a helmet, like a sticker or team logo. The decals can also be placed on different kinds of helmets, including those used by cyclists. The decal consists of four layers of micro-engineered product that diverts angled impacts.
“When shots hit the head, instead of torquing the head, which can tear the brain and cause internal damage, the hits will slip right off the helmet,” says Reid, adding it works as a kind of Vaseline box. He says the technology is non-invasive, cost-effective and does not change the optics of the game. “It is not like you are enhancing the armour. You are simply using science and technology to mitigate the hits that are happening and nobody has been able to do that so far.”
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