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Researchers Work To Better Detect Concussions In Athletes

The sound of screaming children fills the soccer field at the Twin Lakes Recreational Center in Bloomington. This is the first time many of these kids have participated in an organized sport.

Chris Doran works to teach the kids the fundamentals of soccer.

“We don’t want the players to be fearful of the ball touching their heads. Because done properly…it can be absolutely a safe experience for the player.”

—Chris Doran, Owner & Coach, Bloomington Soccer

“As a coach, we don’t want the players to be fearful of the ball touching their heads,” Doran says. “Because done properly and in the right circumstance, it can be absolutely a safe experience for the player.”

Concussions are a common brain injury where the brain makes contact with the skull upon impact. The impact kills brain cells and causes inflammation of the brain tissue. A typical healthy adult can recover from a concussion in just a couple of weeks.

But experts say some victims of concussions never get better, instead developing a condition known as ‘post-concussion syndrome,’ where symptoms of a concussion persist for weeks or even months. Because of this growing concern, officials are tightening the rules on so-called high-risk sports. Take, for instance, head butting in soccer.

“What U.S. soccer did two or three years ago was they sat down with some physicians and they said, you know what, for our players in our country, it’s not necessary for them to be heading the ball at the age of 7,8,9 or 10,” Doran says.

That age is kind of arbitrary, however, because one haunting aspect about concussions is that we still don’t know a whole lot about them.

New Concussion Research Looks For Quick Diagnoses

In Dr. Nicholas Port’s lab at the Indiana University School of Optometry, researchers are diving into relatively uncharted territory. Part of Dr. Port’s work is to find an accurate and objective way to clinically diagnose concussions minutes after they occur.

His lab is using eye-tracking technology to measure cognitive performance in athletes.

A test for concussion symptoms at Dr. Port's lab

Photo: James Vavrek

A test for concussion symptoms at Dr. Port's lab

“So the eye tracker is measuring the eye movements. Like all video-based eye trackers, we’re monitoring the eye by the reflection of an infrared LED off the cornea, plus the movement of the pupil. So it’s kind of standard technology,” Port says. “We’re simultaneously measuring balance with a Wii balance board, and then what we have is a battery of classic Neurology of Eye Movement exams. So we have two smooth pursuit tests, two saccade tests, and an optokinetic response test.”

At the beginning of the season, before a sport starts, Dr. Port’s lab gathers data on athletes while they’re healthy. It’s a method called “baseline testing,” which ensures researchers have accurate information of an athlete before a possible injury.

“And then if they were to get injured, we remeasure their eye movements to see if they have been affected,” Port says.

Port’s team has gathered baselines from 1500 athletes and performed eye tracker testing with more than 100 athletes with confirmed concussions.

Soccer is a particular concern for doctors; recent changes to guidelines recommend no head-butting for young kids.

Photo: James Vavrek

Soccer is a particular concern for doctors; recent changes to guidelines recommend no head-butting for young kids.

Some of that data comes from Bloomington High School North, where Athletic trainers from the school are praising the lab’s efforts.

“What it’s really given me is a lot of hope,” says Head Athletic Director Orlin Watson. “What we’ve known when I first came out to what we know now is extremely different. This eye tracking would give us the ability to give another piece of objective data that we currently don’t have.”

As parents consider whether to let their kids play sports at the youth level, Port says it’s important to weigh the pros and cons

“And that’s a very personal decision for parents and kids, but I think it’s really important to keep in mind the total benefit of playing organized sports for most kids. I think the benefits far outweigh the risk,” Port says.

Dr. Port’s team at IU is finished collecting data and based on their findings, Port says it’s possible that eye tracker testing could be implemented as standard protocol for diagnosing concussions during sporting events.

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