Using virtual reality, Pac-12 research project aims to ‘unpack the history of concussion’

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* For more on the future of football in the age of concussion awareness, consider this Hotline podcast with concussion expert Chris Nowinski …

To the headsets, exercise bikes, body-cooling instruments and all the other pieces of technology on Pac-12 sidelines this season, add two more items: virtual reality goggles and a tablet computer.

The goggles and tablet are essential pieces to a research project the conference hopes will help revolutionize our understanding of concussions, particularly the recovery process.

The cause is there for all to see, usually in the form of a helmet-on-helmet collision visible on a half-dozen camera angles.

The recovery stage, however, unfolds where the cameras cannot go, and at varying speed, in each traumatized brain.

“Research shows that proper recovery limits the chances of a secondary concussion, and that the sooner a player is removed from play, the faster the recovery,’’ said Matthew McQueen, an associate professor at Colorado and the director of the Pac-12’s Concussion Coordinating Unit, which will administer the project.

“The student-athletes at Division I schools, unlike, say, an emergency room population, are monitored daily — it’s a unique level of high surveillance into how concussion works.”

That surveillance will be made possible, in part, by the VR goggles designed to track ocular motor efficiency. The goggles present a red dot that moves in a circular pattern; while the eyes track the dot, infrared cameras within the goggles track the accuracy of the eye movement.

The athlete’s tracking score in a post-collision state is downloaded to the Samsung tablet, then immediately entered into a secure portal that contains a database.

Within that database is the athlete’s previously-established baseline (i.e., trauma-free) score. The numbers are compared to help determine the presence, and degree of, concussion.

“We’ve found that concussion recovery has a signature eye movement,’’ McQueen said.

Every school has the equipment on hand this season — it’s not just football; several sports are involved in the study — but only five will have results officially entered into the database in 2018-19: Colorado, Washington, Oregon State, USC and Utah.

The other seven schools will be phased into the project over the next two years, eventually giving McQueen’s team baseline scores for every athlete in the conference and a standardized way of testing, diagnosing and monitoring the head trauma.

We might be able to draw some conclusions at the end of the season,” said Kim Harmon, the head football physician at Washington and leader of a conference oversight group that studies student-athlete health issues

“But in three years we’ll have a lot better understanding. You need big numbers.”

The Concussion Coordinating Unit was formed last year by the conference’s brain trauma task force, which itself is part of the Pac-12’s deeply significant Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative (SAHWBI).

Created in 2013 by commissioner Larry Scott, with approval from the schools, the SAHWBI provides research grants using a slice of the conference’s income from the College Football Playoff.

Unlike other SAHWBI projects — for instance: a mental health awareness campaign founded by two Oregon State athletes — the concussion study is a collaborative effort with the NCAA and Department of Defense.

The NCAA and DoD are jointly operating the Concussion Assessment, Research and Education project (CARE), which is billed as the largest concussion study in history and designed to enhance safety for athletes and service members.

The Pac-12 was designated as a regional hub for the CARE study and received the funding to hire data coordinators and equipment at each school.

In an attempt to break new ground, the conference teamed up with SyncThink, a Palo Alto-based neuro-technology company that makes the Smooth Pursuit goggles in use on sidelines this fall.

The Pac-12 awarded the project to Colorado, and McQueen spent 10 months implementing a data-collection method across the conference. Medical staffs and data coordinators were trained to use the goggles and given standardized monitoring process.

The standardized approach, McQueen said, “will help with our understanding of the natural history of concussions.”

“We don’t really know if it’s one big thing, or are there sub-types that might have different recovery courses,” he added. “No one school has the numbers on a big enough scale, thank goodness.

“But if we put it all together” — concussion recovery data from athletes in every sport at every school — “then the bigger picture begins to emerge. We’re changing the way business is done.”

Here’s how it works:

After a player is involved in a collision and informs the medical staff of dizziness, nausea or light-headedness, he/she will be tested on the sideline (or in the locker room) using two primary methods:

The so-called SCAT approach (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool), which involves memory, balance and orientation tests — and is used by FIFA, among others — and the Smooth Pursuit goggles.

The results will be compared to the baseline scores, at which point trainers and doctors will determine whether there is good reason to believe a concussion occurred. If so, the athlete will be removed from practice or competition.

During the recovery phase, he/she will be test daily using the SCAT approach and the goggle. Once the symptoms subside, the athlete will enter what’s called ‘return to play protocol,’ where additional tests are compared to the baseline scores. The test results for each player throughout the recovery process will be entered into the database.

Could athletes attempt to mislead the medical staffs in order to get back to competition?

“It’s pretty hard to fake it with the VR,” McQueen said. “The trainers will know.”

One aspect of head trauma won’t be studied, either by the Pac-12’s concussion unit or by the joint NCAA/DoD project:

The repeated, sub-concussive blows to the head that occur in practice and games and are believed to contribute to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative neurological disease seen in the brains of deceased former NFL players.

But because of the standardized monitoring process and the volume of information that will be collected over the next three years, the twin studies could lead to new insights into head trauma.

“We can learn a lot because this gives us the opportunity to unpack the history of concussion and see what it looks like,” he said. “We’re seeing the athletes every day, and there are very few populations where you can do that.

“They’re helping us add to our understanding of what is a concussion.”

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