Technology can entertain us. It can help us be more productive. It can even teach us a thing or two about the world. A recent study suggests that technology may be especially good at another task: helping us avoid serious injury. Researchers from Penn State have developed a virtual reality platform that allows for the investigation of cognitive disturbances caused by sports-related concussions. Considering that nearly 300,000 athletes suffer from concussions every year, the research could have a wide-ranging effect on diagnosis and treatment. The following three reasons show why virtual reality may be the next frontier for fighting concussions.
Concussions Are Hard to Diagnose
The symptoms of a concussion manifest differently in every individual, and the line between a minor head-injury and a life-threatening concussion is often blurry. A concussion can result from a single trauma or it can slowly develop over time with repeated injury. Current diagnosis relies heavily on an athlete’s ability to report and accurately describe his or her symptoms, but this doesn’t always occur in the ultra-competitive world of sports where a head-injury can end a career. Plus, the severity of concussion symptoms is often subjective — what defines a severe headache, dizziness or double vision can vary from person to person.
The virtual reality test removes some of this subjectivity by having each individual interact with the same 3-D simulation. Instead of relying on an individual’s description of their symptoms, it gauges quantifiable attributes like memory, reaction time and balance. As more athletes take the test, a clear picture of how concussions affect the brain will emerge.
The Device Removes the Guesswork
To test its new virtual reality tool, the Penn State team performs a series of baseline tests on a sampling of athletes at the beginning of the season to get an idea of what normal cognitive function looks like. Wearing a specially designed headset, participants stand in front of a large screen and complete a video game-like simulation using a joystick. As they navigate through a series of rooms performing simple tasks, the scientists use an EEG to monitor and record brain function.
In the event of an injury, the participant takes the test again, and doctors can compare the data to determine exactly how the brain is being affected by trauma. Ultimately, the tool provides a more accurate picture of how the brain has changed from before to after the injury. The test can even be re-administered every so often to show the degenerative effects of concussions.
The Tool Has an Educational Application
Although Penn State’s virtual reality platform is still a few years away from wider application, a simple VR tool already exists that lets young athletes experience the effects of a concussion. The app is called “Double Vision,” and works with any Android phone, such as the Samsung Galaxy S6, that works with Google Cardboard. This app puts young athletes in the shoes of a soccer goalie who has just suffered a concussion. As the symptoms start to affect the virtual avatar, a coach educates users on the experience and advises players on how to deal with the situation. “Double Vision” is an accessible introduction to a technology that could change the way we think about concussion prevention. It might even save a few lives in the process.