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Diagnosing Concussions Could Use Sound Waves Like Thermometers

When a child takes a hit on the field or in a car crash, doctors and coaches are forced to make quick decisions in diagnosing concussions. A new test could use sound waves like a thermometer, making concussion diagnosis easier, and more objective.

Diagnosing concussions in student athletes can be challenging. After a tough hit, it is up to coaches and doctors to decide whether to put the player back in, or have them sit the game out. But a concussion diagnosis isn’t always cut and dry. Many factors can go into determining how seriously the player is hurt, and sometimes coaches simply get it wrong.

Right now, there is no single test that can objectively diagnose a concussion reliably. Doctors assess a variety of symptoms, from balance to memory, slurred speech, or disorientation, to decide whether a concussion has occurred. But patients’ performance on these tests can be affected by mood, or effort. A patient who is disinterested in the test can throw off the results.

But the development of an objective test could change that. Researchers at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Evanston, Illinois, believe they have isolated a biomarker that will make it easier for coaches, parents, and doctors to decide if a concussion has happened. The key: sound waves.

The study compared how 40 children being treated for a concussion responded to various sound waves as compared to a control group of healthy children. Researchers placed sensors on the children’s heads and measured their brains’ automatic electric reaction to sound. The concussion patients averaged 35% less brain response to changes in pitch. Based on this, the researchers were able to successfully identify 90% of the concussion patients and 95% of the healthy children. Lead author Nina Kraus explains:

“With this new biomarker, we are measuring the brain’s default state for processing sound and how that has changed as a result of a head injury. This is something patients cannot misreport, you cannot fake it or will your brain to perform better or worse.”

Dr. Cynthia Labella, who is a Sports Medicine Phsyician at Lurie Children’s Hopsital says:

“The beauty of this test is that is all taken out of the picture. The patient barely even knows what’s being measured … it’s a truly objective test.”

The test, which is non-invasive, can also measure the success of a person’s treatment. As patients recover from their concussions, their ability to process sound improves.

Right now, the test is not portable, but researchers involved in the study hope to create a headband and diagnostic device that can be taken to the sidelines or used in a doctor’s office. By doing so, they hope to improve the objective diagnosis of concussions and get children on the road to recovery faster.

David Christensen is a brain injury attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He helps concussion victims get their medical expenses covered after an auto accident. If you have suffered a traumatic brain injury, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.