Digging Deeper into the Question of Concussions
> 8/15/2007 8:53:19 AM

The National Football League must be sighing with relief now that pre-season games are underway and the league's on-field product can take some of the attention away from the troubling off-field developments that have bubbled up over the sport's long break. While dogfighting may be making headlines, it is the NFL's handling of retired and disabled players, specifically in regards to neurological decline linked to concussions, that has created perhaps the most ill-will within the organization. Research released earlier this summer showed the damaging concussion effects that NFL employment has had on many of the league's former players. The NFL has taken some action, recently instituting a new hotline to report teams' mistreatment of injured players. The league also now takes baseline tests of every player, which will help to identify when and if a concussion has occurred. Still, many retired players, most notably Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, remain outspoken about what they feel has been a poor response by the league.

Help may be on the way, however, in the form of newly developed technologies that could help teams identify players with concussions and therefore avoid the possibility of further damage. As reported on by the MIT Technology Review, several teams are working on designs that have showed early promise. They write:

Coaches and trainers routinely use crude memory tests to determine if a player can get back on the field. While these quick tests can detect major memory problems, they may miss more subtle cognitive dysfunction. "There is no clear protocol for when it's safe to send players back into games," says Nowinski. "Right now, we are without any technology to quickly--in under 20 minutes--and objectively diagnose mild traumatic brain injury."

An experimental handheld device that uses electroencephalogram (EEG) to read the brain's electrical activity might help. Under development by Roy John, director of the Brain Research Laboratories at New York University, and by Brainscope, a technology company based in Chesterfield, MO, the device is made up of an adhesive strip lined with six electrodes attached to a small computer. After a blow to the head, the strip is affixed to the athlete's forehead to record electrical activity, which is processed through a specialized algorithm and compared with a database of normal and abnormal electrical profiles. The processor then spits out a probability score predicting the likelihood of damage, says John.

In early studies, John's device showed promise in identifying when concussions had occurred, but the next step is to test it in more live action settings. Diagnosing a concussion in the ER and diagnosing a concussion on the sideline of a tight game are two very different things. Both players and coaches have the instinct to send a player who "feels OK" back into the game. But if trainers are able to produce real data on the fly to support their feelings about pulling a player, it will prevent future harm. This is especially important as research has showed that the brain is incredibly vulnerable immediately following a trauma, and a second event, even a small one, can be enough to do much greater damage.

The links between concussions and neurological decline later in life are still being fleshed out, but even failing that, doctors have long understood the effects that brain trauma can have. Technology Review reports that there are over 300,000 sports related concussions each year. That's a lot of youths and adults seeing a lot of stars. Early identification and treatment can prevent future harm, but first a concussion diagnosis must be made. If Roy John, or another team, can develop a valuable tool, atheletes everywhere will benefit.

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