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Stanford football uses Virtual Reality headsets to help them diagnose concussions

A look at a piece of technology that could help doctors and athletes nationwide

Colorado v Stanford Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For the last two seasons, Stanford has been employing the use of a novel eye-tracking headset that helps monitor concussions and help team doctors to make return-to-play decisions on the sideline. This technology was recently featured by KPIX in San Francisco, which dove deep into the technology and its use.

They interviewed Dr. Jam Ghajar, Director of the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center and a President of the Brain Trauma Foundation, and he explained the technology:

“What we do is, we have VR glasses with a red dot going around a circle and cameras inside the glasses so you can actually see where the eyes are moving. We see how well the eyes synchronize with the visual stimulus, the dot going around the circle. The test is 15 seconds, it’s repeated twice, and then a report comes out, so the whole process is very quick, generally under a minute.”

The technology in question is a virtual reality headset that prompts users to follow a visual stimulus and using eye tracking cameras, rates the user’s variability in tracking. The idea is that head trauma can produce disruptions in the brain pathways involved with eye movement, and these brain pathways overlap with those involved with attention. This overlap makes eye movement an objective, quantifiable proxy for a player’s deficit in attentional capacity after experiencing a big hit. The test in question takes less than sixty seconds and can help inform a sideline medical professional when making a return-to-play decision. You can take a look at the test for yourself at SyncThink, which is used by Stanford, the Brain Trauma Foundation, and even the US Department of Defense.

Most importantly, this takes the subjectivity of self-reporting symptoms out of the return-to-play decision. Players should not be relied on to report symptoms after a hit, as they cannot be objective reporters, and symptoms may be delayed or unapparent to the player. A player that returns to play after experiencing a concussion will be less likely to avoid future contact due to decreased awareness and at risk for more severe brain injury should that player experience another trauma.

Concussion is a broadly defined medical condition with potentially devastating consequences for players, and this test helps to move the detection of concussions away from subjective findings into more concrete, objective findings. If this technology is as valid and reliable as Syncthink claims, I imagine its future use will skyrocket. After all, college football concussions are just the tip of the iceberg - it’s estimated that some high school athletes in the United States sustain some 300,000 concussions every year.