Traumatic Brain Injury Prevention and Rehab Options on the Rise

Trent Edwards of the Bills and others continue to fight TBI injuries

Starting Quarterback Trent Edwards #5 of the Buffalo Bills suffers a concussion
Donald Miralle / Getty Images

Those who are avid watchers of the National Football League (NFL) have noticed that the league is beginning to pay serious attention to head injuries. Repeated blows to the head carry an immense risk, and the cumulative effect of repeated brain trauma frequently shows only after the players retire and start experiencing a myriad of health problems. Some consequences can also be observed in the days and weeks after the injury. Many fans of Trent Edwards, a former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, believe that he was never the same after he sustained a concussion during a game against the Arizona Cardinals in 2008. Edwards is now the vice president for product and research development at STRIVR—a startup that is developing virtual reality technology athletes can use to improve their training and build confidence and trust—something Trent Edwards purportedly lost after his injury.

To combat the concussion epidemic in the NFL, brain trauma experts have suggested impact-measuring helmet sensors. There has, however, been some controversy around the use of these sensors—some experts doubted the accuracy of initial models—and, as such, NFL helmets have not been outfitted with this technology yet. Nonetheless, the NFL continues to support sensor testing, and at least 20 colleges have put these sensors to use helping coaches and medical personnel monitor when dangerous head trauma occurs. More accurate sensors are now being designed, as well as other diagnostic tools that can guide concussion assessment. Furthermore, there has been a lot of effort to increase concussion awareness and educate players and coaches about the signs and symptoms of a concussion, so brain injuries can get promptly reported and properly managed.

Research on Impact Sensors

A lot of resources are being invested into developing more advanced and accurate technologies in brain injury treatment and rehabilitation. Since active duty soldiers are often exposed to head concussions, the U.S. Army has a vested interest in developing novel systems that can detect and prevent traumatic brain injuries (TBI). In fact, they have been working closely with the NFL in developing sensors that can be fitted in helmets, cars and on torsos. One day, these sensors could help doctors assess an individual after they have experienced a military blast.

Some impact sensors use a traffic-light-type warning system: green for normal impact, yellow for moderate exposure and red for serious exposure. In this way, service members (or athletes) can be monitored and not sent back into action (or onto the field of play) if they have sustained a potentially serious impact and need to recuperate.

One example of modern technology for concussion detection is the CheckLight, designed by the electronics design company MC10 in partnership with Reebok. This is a sensor aimed specifically at athletes. It works as a head-impact indicator and can be worn with or without a helmet, meaning it measures blows to the head and not just the helmet. It visually displays the severity of a particular blow (red is used for severe impacts), making it easier for coaches, parents, and athletes to make decisions regarding the care that is needed after an impact.

Other technologies and diagnostic tools that can help prevent and detect concussions are also being developed. Researchers from the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City presented a diagnostic tool that can track eye movements. In this way, it assesses brain function and increases the objectivity of measuring impacts to the head. Experts hope that tools like this could help reduce the number of missed cases.

Mobile Apps That Can Help TBI Patients

The problem of brain injury is widespread and can affect anyone at any time, changing the course of their lives and presenting the patient and their families with unforeseeable challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the United States 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury each year. The severity ranges from mild concussions to serious brain injuries that can lead to coma and death. Often, tasks that used to be second nature can become daunting endeavors and habitual skills difficult to execute. Here, too, digital technology can assist.

Mobile apps can potentially help those with a TBI re-learn and/or improve cognitive abilities such as memory, concentration and communication skills.

For instance, the "Yes/No" app can help those with severe communication problems by enabling the user to give yes and no replies with the push of a button. The Audible app can be used by patients who have developed issues with reading visually.

Mood and behavior issues can often be a symptom of TBI. The "Breathe2Relax" app can potentially aid with stress and anxiety management, while "Behavior Tracker Pro" can potentially be used to track and graph how behaviors change over time.  

Moving Towards Smart Treatment Options

The prognosis and protocol for TBI depends on the circumstance of the individual and the severity of the injury. The TBIcare Project, a EU-based research initiative, is taking this into account as it develops a predictive model that potentially will be used in emergency units. The model will help determine what brain injuries to treat first, how to treat them, as well as customizing an individual’s stabilization and recovery process.

Data from hundreds of TBI patients are being gathered and analyzed. The hope being that eventually doctors may have access to an algorithmic-based system that can advise them on the most effective course of treatment. This new, evidence-based approach to TBI will combine statistical models and simulation techniques with the promise of more accurate diagnosing and treatment of TBI in the future.

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