UVic neuroscientists get a head start on concussion diagnosis

Science, Medical Sciences

When a young person hits their head on the ice, on the field or at the pool it can cause damage to the brain. However, current assessment techniques make it difficult for medical practitioners to diagnose a concussion because the tools currently in use are subjective and difficult to interpret.

Thanks to $750,000 in new funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the BC Knowledge Development Fund and UVic’s Division of Medical Sciences, two of Canada’s top brain injury experts are on the case.

Neuroscientists Brian Christie and Craig Brown have used the new funding to purchase new hardware and software for collecting accurate baseline information on cognitive function in young athletes.

Without that baseline data, doctors, parents and coaches face an uphill battle determining how severe the injury is, or if and how well a patient is recovering.

By establishing baselines in children prior to any injury, it will help physicians make better decisions about when it’s safe for them to return to play.

The baseline data will also be useful for research into brain disorders such as dementia, stroke recovery and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, as well as traumatic brain injuries.

For the concussion-specific research, Christie has purchased NeuroTracker software (multiple-object tracking video games used to assess concussions), big screen monitors and other hardware necessary to build four testing stations, allowing him to gather cognitive data from up to six subjects at a time in his UVic lab.

NeuroTracker software involves a screen with eight balls on it, with participants asked to track four as they move randomly about the screen. With each successful trial, the balls move faster and are more difficult to follow.

“Anytime they get a concussion, their ability to perform the game drops dramatically—almost in half—and as they return from a concussion we can see their speed in following the balls come back,” explains Christie.

The testing stations are portable and this winter Christie and his students were out in the community collecting baseline data from Victoria-area minor hockey players

There’s a paucity of data on the effects of concussions in the developing brain and this research will determine NeuroTracker’s effectiveness for helping parents, athletes and coaches evaluate concussed athlete’s injury, says Christie.

Their research suggests that the software could also be used as a rehabilitative tool for individuals with concussions and more severe brain injury. 

Currently, children (ages 5-17) and adults from Victoria and all over the island can come in for free testing prior to the start of their sports season to establish personal baseline measurements.

If the athlete is injured at any time after this, they can return for re-testing to help determine how rapidly their visual-spatial functioning returns to normal. Testing can also be performed in individuals without prior baselines.

The results from this research are being used to develop better assessment tools and return-to-play guidelines for children in Canada. It’s part of a larger national study that seeks to determine the best tests for evaluating concussions in children.

Preliminary results are already promising and will be showcased in several upcoming national meetings, says Christie.

“We’re excited about this work not only because it will enable medical practitioners to better diagnose and treat patients with concussions and strokes, but also because it provides unique educational opportunities for UVic students, allowing them to directly increase our knowledge about concussions, stroke and other types of brain injury,” he adds.

Some of the funding is also going toward the purchase of a second two-photon microscope to help students in Brown’s lab understand why brain function and blood flow is disrupted after stroke, particularly in patients with diabetes, and provide insight into how to correct these disturbances.

For more information about getting involved in concussion research at UVic please contact brainlab@uvic.ca or 250-472-5997.


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Keywords: concussion, brain, research, athletics, neuroscience, biomedical, health

People: Brian Christie, Craig Brown

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