The Brain Boom

The brain: an incredibly complex organ, still mystifies neuroscientists working to understand its functions and mechanisms. While methods for studying the brain have vastly improved over the past few decades, brain injuries are still barely understood. This is especially troubling, given the frequency of traumatic brain injury in contact sport athletes playing at every level.

According to the Center for Disease Control, around 300,000 sport-related brain injuries, primarily concussions, occur each year in the US. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury, which is typically caused by a blunt force that causes the brain to slam against the skull walls. This injury predominantly affects athletes who play contact sports such as football, hockey and soccer. While there are a number of visible and immediate symptoms, including vomiting, confusion and slurred speech, accurate diagnosis is almost impossible given the highly nuanced nature of the injury. Currently, treatment options are limited, and methods of tracking the brain’s healing process are virtually nonexistent. Often, athletes are allowed to return from their medical leave before their brain has fully recovered, putting themselves at even greater risk for further injury and prolonged symptoms.

As is the case for most brain injuries, neuroscientists are still struggling to understand the mechanisms behind concussions, leading to difficulty developing methods for diagnosis and ways to facilitate recovery. Princeton neuroscientist Dr. Annegret Dettwiler-Danspeckgruber and University Health Services director Dr. Margot Putukian, recently conducted a study on sports-related concussions at Princeton. The two researchers studied varsity level students athletes. Their findings suggest that functional brain activity differences persist in concussed brains even after two months, even while outward performance on symptomatic tests appear normal. According to Dr. Dettwiler-Danspeckgruber in her TEDx Carnegie Lake talk, concussion is “a very elusive injury, it’s a very invisible injury”.

This cutting edge field of research has given birth to a new brain related technology industry, which is being fed by increasingly widespread awareness of the dangers of brain injuries. As of September, the National Football League has promised to spend $100 million to fund concussion research on effective prevention, diagnosis and medical care techniques. Around 60% of these funds are directed towards enhancing existing football equipment, while the remaining amount is going towards medical research.

A number of technology companies have benefited from increasing public awareness and investments into the concussion sector. The Guardian Cap, developed by Erin and Lee Hanson, is one of the most prominent products on the market right now. A soft shell that attaches to a helmet, the Guardian Cap is designed to reduce the impact of blunt force and lower the risk of concussion. Since the cap made its debut five years ago, it has been extensively studied at various institutions including labs at Emory University, Penn State and the Purdue Neurotrauma Group. Caps cost around 60.00 USD, with varying designs for different high-impact sports. The Guardian Cap appears to be increasingly popular, with Georgia Tech and Clemson University recently adopting this technology for their football teams.

Another startup, this one found in Vancouver, British Columbia, is Eeglewave, which uses non-invasive measures of brain activity to determine if concussion has caused a change in the brain. The product quickly measures the athlete’s EEG brain wave signals to identify indications of brain injury in under 30 minutes. Eeglewave markets itself as a more portable, affordable and objective measure of changes in the brain than other more cumbersome and less reliable technologies. The company is currently conducting a clinical trial in partnership with the University of British Columbia.

The Guardian Cap and Eeglewave are delivering promising results. However, many of the other concussion-related products currently on the market are ineffective or lack strong evidence, and are simply working to exploit growing public fear of brain injury. While medical research is benefiting from increased public awareness of concussion, the door remains wide open for scam businesses taking advantage of gaps in public knowledge. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the nature of concussions, and about recovery,” says Dr. Virji, neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, “don’t simply accept the claims that are made by these companies without critically evaluating the evidence.”