Dena Garner, Ph.D and Citadel professor of health, exercise, and sport science teamed up with Nancey Trevanian Tsai, M.D., and Medical University of South Carolina clinical assistant professor of neurosurgery to conduct a study on a new device that may use the eyes to fill the void in objectively measuring the severity and outcome of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. Cogent Engineering published the study in their January issue.
The prevalence: According to the CDC, Americans suffer up to 3.8 million concussions annually. Recreational contact and collision sports and activities account for almost a forth of all childhood traumatic brain injuries.
The problem: Current medical methods for evaluating and diagnosing the severity of concussions and traumatic brain injuries have poor accuracy. The lack of accuracy is due to the fact that the majority of assessment data comes from 1) subjective symptom assessment by medical personnel and 2) patient input that’s often skewed or inaccurate due to the cognitive side effects of the injury itself. Further complicating matters is that mild traumatic brain injuries commonly go unnoticed and unreported by sufferers.
The possible solution: The Blink Reflexometer is a high-speed videography-based device that triggers, records and analyzes a patient’s blink reflex. It was developed by Tsai and the Zucker Institute for Applied Neurosciences. As it is patent-pending, it’s only available for investigational applications at the moment. The technology uses a mask to deliver random puffs of air to a patient’s eye over a few seconds. Blink reflex is recorded at approximately 280 frames per second, with select frames being isolated for analysis. The study purports that the device offers a valid, noninvasive, quick, and reliable tool to identify concussions.
According to Garner, the potential applications for the machine, such as it being used field-side at sporting events to immediately assess and diagnose concussions, is what compelled her to participate in the study. During the study, she compared the blink reflex parameters of healthy male football players with those suspected of having a concussion.
The data showed differentiated variations between normal sports-play blink reflex changes and blink reflex after a concussive event. It then found that head impact athletes presented with decreased blink latency, increased differential latency, and larger lid excursions, all of which was opposite than those without head impacts.
In other words, blink parameters change both during normal play as well as concussive events, but do so in distinguishable ways that can be used as a diagnostic indicator for concussion.
According to Garner, the study’s results confirm the merits of a blink reflex device being utilized by field-side coaches, trainers, and medical staff to conclusively determine when a player is suffering a head injury, if they should be removed from the game for a suspected injury, and as a diagnostic application that can not be skewed by subjective or manipulative data. She also points out that the potential applications for the device cross over into an array of settings other than sports.
Tsai admits the conflict of interest between being the inventor and researcher, but both she and Garner emphasize that the research does not endorse any specific machine. Instead, it confirms the usefulness of blink reflex technology as an objective assessment tool for head trauma and possibly even other neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.