Head Trauma Sensors Aim to Measure Concussion Risks

New wearable sensors could potentially save lives by gauging the impact of a bump, blow or jolt to the head.

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Over the weekend, Tampa Bay pitcher Alex Cobb was hit in the right ear by a line drive, just weeks after the Toronto Blue Jays Pitcher J.A. Happ was hit in the head by a liner as well. While Cobb tweeted the next day that he “woke up with only a minor headache,” the aftershocks of traumatic brain injuries might not be felt until later. Case in point: Diamondbacks’ pitcher Brandon McCarthy recently suffered a seizure that was attributed to his skull fracture from a hit last year.

Helmets may — or may not — have helped reduce the damage in all three of these incidents. But chances are, pitchers will never don them. Now there is another option to help address the health risks of head trauma: Two new wearable products can both alert athletes immediately after a significant impact is felt and log the total number of impacts over time. While the sensors are no substitute for avoiding such collisions in the first place, they may help build awareness of concussion risks among athletes or anyone prone to head injuries.

(MOREHigh School Athletes Continue To Play Despite Concussion Symptoms)

A Beanie…for Jocks
Available later this month for $150, CheckLight, a head-impact indicator weighing less than an ounce, is made of an ultrathin, bendable electronic sensor (developed by tech company MC10) fitted into a mesh cap (designed by Reebok). It senses when the wearer has been dealt a major blow to the head with a yellow light to signal a “moderate” impact and red light to indicate a “severe” one. (A proprietary algorithm makes the call.)

The real goal, of course, is for the sensor never to light up in the first place. Isaiah Kacyvenski— an 8-year NFL veteran linebacker and now head of sports at the Cambridge-based company — explained to TIME, “The whole point of the CheckLight system is that you don’t want the red or yellow light to be triggered. In our field tests, the majority of coaches reported that their athletes were more cognizant of keeping their head out of the path of impact. This is a real-time teaching tool to give you instantaneous feedback.”

With a young son of his own, Kacyvenski hopes the sensor will change athletes’ behavior on the field: “It’s an objective measure of force of impact. You take the burden off that athlete; otherwise, the game moves on before the player has a chance to decide if he should go to the sidelines to get it checked-out.” Fully charged, the device will have 13 hours of field use (approximately a week of practices and games).

(MOREEven Football Players Without Concussions Show Signs of Brain Injury)

A Patch to Attach Before You Hit The Grass
A second impact sensor developed with student athletes in mind is X-Patch from X2 Biosystems. Rich Able, the Seattle company’s co-founder, says after his son Kyle got knocked down during a high school football game, the former honors student wasn’t the same — he was having difficulty concentrating, complaining of blurred vision and bright lights, and ended high school with a 2.6 GPA.

Inspired to create a real-time warning system, Able helped develop the X-Patch. About the size of a quarter and weighing two grams, the adhesive, rechargeable patch is placed on the back of the neck, and is able to wirelessly transmit information to those on the sidelines once an impact is detected. What’s more, the data is encrypted using the same technology online banks use to prevent non-authorized people–potentially members of rival teams–from gaining access. Once registered in the coach’s computer or tablet, the force of the hit is matched with a large data set of other impacts that the company has already gathered.

Able tells TIME, “Impact information is shown to coaches not only in comparison to an athlete’s neurocognitive performance prior to the impacts, but also in context of an individual player’s history. We gauge the magnitude of impact according to how rare the impact event is in the course of the particular activity at the particular level of play. For example, a 10 on the X2 scale would represent an event of such magnitude that on average one team would experience a “10” once during the course of an entire season.”

For now, only athletes at various universities, such as the University of Michigan and Stanford, are using the patch during practice and games, but a nation-wide rollout is slated for Summer 2014, pricing not yet available, according to Able.

It’s a Detector, not a Diagnosis 
While the gadgets have simplified and quickened the detection step of a head impact, they’re not replacements for medical check-ups: “There’s no magic number you can read on a device that means you have a concussion. Many more factors besides forces are involved,” Dr. Robert C. Cantu, a  professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and medical director of the Sports Legacy Institute tells the New York Times

MOREHelmets and Mouthguards Don’t Prevent Concussions