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How an app may predict brain injury

In the not-too-distant future, it may just be possible to use an app that can diagnose whether a knock in the head could have long-term health consequences.

A collaborative project at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), consisting of bioengineers, neurosurgeons, neuroscientist, psychologists and MRI specialists, is aiming for just that.

As reported, the team aims to do a longitudinal study involving professional rugby players, who will wear thumbnail-sized sensors that will measure the acceleration of sudden force to the head.

Background of the study

With the use of an MRI machine, they will track the structural changes resulting from that impact over time.

The information will be used to create a high fidelity computational model of the brain and cell mechanical devices, how it has been damaged as a result of a mechanical insult, right down to the cellular level.

This will be the most accurate way to determine whether a certain head impact has the potential to lead to long-term damage.

The Problem

Current diagnosis of mild, moderate or severe brain injuries is usually dependent on a questionnaire, but this is an imperfect way of diagnosing the effect of a brain injury because it is very subjective.

A lot of players do not want to reveal the extent of an injury because that might prevent them from playing.

That lack of accurate diagnostics, biomarkers, and outcome measures of brain injury can have a devastating impact on a person’s life.

A lot of mild traumatic brain injuries do not have any symptoms.

People who have suffered a knock to the head might feel fine after a few weeks but may have incurred damage that can have consequences manifesting much later in life.

These consequences may lead to early onset Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and other health problems.

Project plans

The team is currently working with scientists who developed an eye-tracking method that can assess the impact of a brain injury through changes in eye movement.

They are planning to use that method in an app in order to identify if an injury is mild, moderate or severe, quickly, easily and objectively.

Even a mild head injury should be taken seriously. A lot of young players do not realise the seriousness of head impact.

The app will be able to inform the user quickly if they should stop playing for a while and go see a doctor.

Like all research, how quickly they can develop the App will depend on getting funding. But once accomplished, it will be possible to develop it within a few years, particularly since the team is made of good people who are all leaders in their own field.

A number of disciplines have come together to work on this, which is quite rare in this area.

The Future of Medical Tech

Dr Vickie Shim, who is leading the team, will be discussing the research at The Future of Medical Technology, which is a free public event.

Two other emerging scientists from the Institute will also be presenting. One will speak about his research into normal and abnormal electrical activity in the gut and the development of a device that allows for non-intrusive and quick diagnosis of gut problems.

The other will discuss the international project she is leading, which is to create a world-first virtual pregnancy.

This virtual model will be used to research blood vessels in the uterus, with the goal of improving diagnoses and treatment of problems like fetal growth restriction, which results in babies being born abnormally small.

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