Science-- there's something for everyone

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Quick and simple test for concussion

Watching the Olympics has put me in the mood for a story about concussions.

Concussion, or mild traumatic brain injury, is a common problem for athletes. Briefly, concussion is a bruised brain. It occurs when the brain slams against the inside of the skull following rapid deceleration or impact. Symptoms can include headache, visual problems, nausea, convulsions, disorientation and unconsciousness. Because of the great range of symptoms, it can be difficult to assess whether an athlete has suffered a concussion. This knowledge is critical, as suffering a second concussion before the first has healed can have catastrophic effects, particularly for children.

James Eckner of the University of Michigan has devised a quick and simple method of assessing whether an athlete has in fact suffered a concussion, based on an idea by Michigan high school student Ian Richardson. The researchers plan to present their idea at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in the spring.

Eckner and his team attached a hockey puck to the bottom of a stick containing centimeter markings along its length. During the test, the researcher suddenly releases the stick, and the patient is asked to grab it as quickly as he can. The markings indicate how far the stick travels before the patient catches it.

James Eckner tests the reaction time of one of the study's authors, James Richardson, using the method they developed. University of Michigan.

Eckner compared the reaction times of 8 college football players both before and after they had had independently diagnosed concussions (192 students did not have concussions, so could not be used for the latter part of the study). The post-concussion reaction times were about 15% slower (30 milliseconds).

Dr. Eckner cautions that this was only a preliminary test, and should be repeated with larger numbers of subjects. In addition, it should be tested under a variety of field conditions. Although coaches and medical teams may bring the weighted stick to games, they won’t necessarily have tables and chairs at the ready. If the device does prove to be reliable, the researchers suggest that it be used as a screening tool to assess whether athletes should be allowed back into play.