TENS OF THOUSANDS of American football players, from grade-schoolers on up to the pros, will be treated for concussions this year. Specialists suspect that for every player who is pulled from a game and diagnosed, another will have his injury go unnoticed, since only those who report feeling ill or display the most-conspicuous signs of traumatic brain injury--such as losing consciousness or acting disoriented--are likely to be examined by a neurologist.
In order to detect concussions as they occur, and to help coaches determine quickly and conclusively when players should be taken off the field, a team of Columbia University researchers is developing what would be the first wearable diagnostic device for traumatic brain injury.
Called NoMo, it incorporates electroencephalography (EEG) sensors of the type commonly used in hospitals to measure a patient's brain activity. The sensors, which ordinarily would be taped to the scalp, instead are tucked in between the pads of a football helmet. Upon detecting the distinct electromagnetic wave patterns of a traumatic brain injury, they will send an alert to a computer on the sidelines.
"Within seconds of a player being hit, everyone will know whether or not he's suffered a concussion," says neurologist James Noble, who designed the technology with biomedical engineer Barclay Morrison. "This will eliminate a lot of the problems you have now with coaches, athletic trainers, and team physicians having to make fairly subjective judgments about who should be removed from a game to receive a full neurological evaluation."
The idea for NoMo was inspired by Noble's experiences serving as a neurological consultant to collegiate and professional football teams--helping team doctors determine if and when players who have been benched for concussions are recovered fully and battle-ready again. This is a critical decision, since a player who returns to the field and takes additional hits too soon after suffering a concussion is more likely to incur long-term neurological damage.
"Everybody involved in football wants a more reliable way of identifying when these injuries happen," Noble says. "The culture of the game, at any level, is such that the players are often reluctant to volunteer that...