This Wearable Sensor May Help Detect Concussions Early in Athletes

Researchers developed a small, flexible patch that sticks on the back of an athlete’s neck and can identify whiplash

A woman gets tackled while playing rugby
About 3.8 million concussions from sports-related injuries occur every year in the U.S. Patrick Hamilton / Contributor via Getty Images

About 3.8 million concussions from sports-related injuries occur annually in the United States. These injuries can have “prolonged symptoms and long-term consequences,” according to University of Michigan Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 5 to 8 percent of all athletes in the country suffer a concussion in any given sports season.

While concussions often happen after physical impact, the brain can still be damaged without collision. Whiplash—or high-acceleration head movement—can also cause injuries like concussions. Early detection of concussions, with or without collision, is important to avoid future complications. 

In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers created a device to identify whiplash early: a small, flexible patch that sticks on the back of an athlete’s neck. 

“Whenever there is movement of the neck, there is pressure either in the form of contraction or tension,” Nelson Sepúlveda, a professor of electrical engineering at Michigan State University and co-author of the paper, tells The Daily Beast’s Tony Ho Tran. “Those movements are picked up by the patch and translated to an electrical signal.”

The electrical signal produced is directly proportional to the amount of strain the neck experiences and can be used to estimate the acceleration and velocity of neck movement, both used for concussion predictions, per a statement. The patch, which is about 0.1 millimeter thick, is made of a layer of thermoplastic material.

“The end goal ... is to have wearable, untethered patches that can provide real-time information about the head and neck movement of the athlete,” Sepúlveda tells UPI’s Judy Packer-Tursman.

To test out their engineering, the researchers affixed a “human head substitute,” also called a “dummy,” to a moving metal plate. They attached the patch to the dummy and dropped it from a suspended height of two feet, measuring the three-dimensional movements experienced by the head. They found that the sensor was 90 percent accurate when compared to a more intricate and traditional method—a system consisting of a triaxial accelerometer and gyroscope. 

“Unlike accelerometer-based current trends on concussion-detection systems, which rely on sensors integrated in the athlete’s helmet, the flexible patch attached to the neck would provide information on the dynamics of the head movement, thus eliminating the potential of false readings from helmet sliding or peak angular acceleration,” write the authors. 

Acute symptoms of concussions include headaches and nausea, with long-term symptoms associated with concussions and head trauma consisting of memory loss, motor disfunction or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). No medical treatments exist for concussions besides rest, so detection and prevention are extremely important.

In the future, the researchers say they want to continue tweaking their patch so that it could eventually “transmit the information wirelessly to a receiver that can store and create a database with all the strain experienced by the athlete’s head and establish a concussion prediction model,” Sepúlveda tells The Daily Beast

According to Sepúlveda, the technology could be used outside of sports science, to monitor the structural health of pipes underground, for example, or to monitor the movement of underwater plants and animals. 

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