Michelle LaPlaca, Georgia Tech and David Wright, Emory

Teenagers are wily. They know heightened awareness about concussions means that coaches are no longer going to tell them to man up after a blow to the head and get back in the game. To ensure playing time, many try to outsmart sideline screenings by memorizing the words and phrases they’ll be asked to repeat as part of these mini-assessments. But even players who don’t want to outwit safety precautions rarely know if their gray matter is bruised after a hit. Concussions are hard to diagnose and often rely on subjective observations from coaches and trainers: How many fingers am I holding up?

Dr. Michelle LaPlaca, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, intends to eliminate that guesswork. She has developed a device to objectively detect symptoms of traumatic brain injuries right on the sidelines. LaPlaca and coinventor David Wright, M.D., an expert in emergency medicine and neuroscience at Emory University, are now testing DETECT (Display Enhanced Testing for Cognitive Impairment and Traumatic Brain Injury) on the football fields of the Westminster Schools and two colleges.

DETECT combines a sturdy tablet computer with headphones and goggles to test reaction times, information processing speed, working memory, and other cognitive measures immediately after a suspected traumatic brain injury has occurred. “We thought it was important to capture changes right away rather than right after the game or the next day,” says LaPlaca. “It is more sensitive than the normal test. The idea is you’d be able to remove someone from play so they wouldn’t get a second concussion, which is very dangerous—not giving the brain time to heal.”

A complete neuropsychological exam administered by a neurologist can take close to two hours. A DETECT screening takes only ten minutes. Because the device generates random words as part of the memory assessment, even the most determined player can’t outsmart it.
Having untreated concussions or multiple concussions, even minor ones, can cause serious lasting brain injury. That’s why, says LaPlaca, it’s important to diagnose brain trauma as soon as possible and start treatment (usually modified physical and mental activities) immediately.

DETECT isn’t just for athletes. The goal is also to have it in emergency rooms, on battlefields, and at other places where traumatic brain injuries are prevalent and need to be diagnosed quickly. Several years ago LaPlaca testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on progress in traumatic brain injury research, diagnosis, and treatment. After those discussions, LaPlaca and Wright, along with their colleagues at Tech and Emory, redesigned the tablet to be more durable to meet military specs.

The patent for DETECT was approved in August. LaPlaca hopes to have the device in wide use by late next year. The sooner it’s out there, the sooner it can start helping people, she says. “There are lots of concussion assessment tools—computer tests, sheets of paper people fill out. But there’s nothing else that can do a consistent neuropsychological test right away, on the spot.”

This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.