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UW Team Develops Phone App to Diagnose Concussions

An app in development at the University of Washington could be an inexpensive way to more accurately diagnose concussions in youth sports. (C Watts/Flickr)
An app in development at the University of Washington could be an inexpensive way to more accurately diagnose concussions in youth sports. (C Watts/Flickr)
September 11, 2017

SEATTLE – Football season is here again and, while the National Football League and college football sometimes are seen as punting on the issue, concussions are a big deal.

But it isn't always easy to know when an athlete has a concussion.

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a smartphone app called PupilScreen, which measures the eye's response to light using the phone's camera light.

Right now, medical personnel use a penlight, which isn't very accurate, or a pupillometer, a bulky and expensive technology, to detect concussions.

Alex Mariakakis is a Ph.D. student at UW who helped develop the technology.

"The part we're more interested in, possibly in the long term, is the youth sports – so peewee or Pop Warner or high school teams, where maybe they don't have a trained neurosurgeon on site,” Mariakakis explains. “It's something that a concerned parent or a volunteer nurse could download on their phone and then use."

Concussions aren't just a big deal for football players, either. According to a 2013 paper endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine, 3.8 million concussions occur each year in the U.S. during competitive and recreational sports, though about half are unreported.

The technology is still in its early stages, and the researchers hope to have the app commercially available within two years.

But Mariakakis notes that in many ways, concussion research is still in its beginning stages too, largely because of the clunky technology used to diagnose concussions.

"If we can make a smartphone app that can get that same data and we can get a big study, we might actually be able to contribute to the medical community and say, 'Hey, we were able to do this big sample, get this big sample population that was previously unreachable, by using our smartphone tool,'" he explains.

Multiple concussions can have devastating effects on the brain. Researchers have found a link between head injuries and a degenerative brain disease similar to dementia known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.


Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA