University of Calgary researchers develop a portable brain imaging device for concussions

(Photo Credit: Pauline Zulueta, Cumming School of Medicine)

One of the most common injuries in sports today is a concussion. But, there is not much in the way of capturing an image of it.

A scientist from the University of Calgary, Jeff Dunn, PhD, and his team have developed a portable brain imaging system in hopes of changing that reality. The system uses light to detect and monitor damage in the brain from concussion. This technology will be reviewed by researchers and doctors at an upcoming study at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

The device, a Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), measures communication in the brain by measuring oxygen levels. When the brain is working well, major regions on each side of the brain are communicating and so have similar patterns of blood flow and oxygen levels in blood. Researchers measure the changes in blood oxygen levels as a marker of brain function. Results show these patterns change after concussion.

“The one thing we know is that there can be physiological changes in the brain that last for months to years after a brain injury due to concussion. We discovered a new technology that is portable to measure those changes,” says Dunn, director of the Experimental Imaging Centre at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “We will now apply this new technology to see how important these changes are, as we try to understand how concussion evolves over time.”

Dunn became interested in finding a way to image concussion after his children became involved in ski racing.

“A lot of kids on the ski hill were getting head hits and it was really very apparent that there wasn’t an imaging method that could help them,” says Dunn, who is also a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the CSM. “Currently, concussion is often measured by the symptoms someone experiences, but we really don’t know what’s happening in the brain in any one person.”

Effects of a concussion are usually temporary, but they can do long term damage. Some effects include headaches and problems with concentration, memory, balance and coordination, loss of consciousness, nausea, vomiting, “seeing stars”, and disorder of tastes and smells to just name a few. They will be different for each person, which makes it hard to peg down sometimes, depending on the severity of the concussion.

Through Dunn’s research, he is hoping that the images will show a connection between symptoms and abnormalities in the brain that will help doctors access treatment protocols and recovery timelines.  Dunn will be joining forces with physicians at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, and other University of Calgary researchers at the CSM and in the faculties of kinesiology and arts to use the imaging device to study concussion in children.

“We will be able to follow young patients over time to establish whether this new technology can help us determine the extent of the injury and how the brain is recovering,” says Dunn.

Keith Yeates, PhD, lead for the university’s Integrated Concussion Research Program and a co-investigator on the study, adds, “The fNIRS device has the potential to provide a convenient method for helping detect concussion.”

The researchers place a cap – very much like a swim cap – on the head to image the brain. The cap contains small lights that have sensors attached to a computer that analyse brain activity, making this device portable and non-invasive.

Although most concussions are related to sports, concussions can happen every day from many different mediums. While most people recover, there are sometimes long-term consequences that will effect a person’s health.

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