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Portable Optical Brain Imaging Device Finds Concussions

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An optical brain-imaging device could be a cheap, portable way of diagnosing concussions on the athletic field—or the battlefield—a preliminary study suggests.

The device uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) via a three-pound band that’s strapped around the head. The “headcap” measures the flow and oxygenation of the blood as subjects take a computerized neurocognition test. University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences researchers tested nine people, ages 18 to 45, who had suffered a sports-related concussion within the previous 15 to 45 days, as well as five healthy controls. Anthony Kontos, PhD, lead author of an article about the research that was published in Brain Imaging and Behavior, explained the results:

We found decreased and more spread-out activation in the concussed group. In other words, their injured brains were less efficient and strained to get from elsewhere in the brain the resources necessary to perform cognitive tasks.

Dr. Kontos is assistant research director for the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program and assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Pitt. He was quoted in a UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) news release.

The fNIRS scanner, Dr. Kontos said, is “a portable and fairly inexpensive imaging device, compared to MRI, and most important, it allows us to combine both spatial and temporal information, meaning what is going on in a specific area of the brain and when the activation is occurring. It’s not just location. It’s not just timing. It’s both.”

Currently, he said, “You can wear this while doing neurocognitive testing. You can wear this during balance testing. You can even wear it while doing exertional testing, like on a treadmill. It’s usable in an environment for sports-related concussion.” A wireless version, expected to be available soon, will make the device even more portable and thus more useful on sports sidelines or in combat situations.

“In the past decade and a half, many in the field of concussion science have tried to find an imaging tool that could help us in a clinical setting and failed to find anything with consistency,” said Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD, director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program and senior author of the article about the study. “This preliminary study, although small, showed us where in the brain a patient is affected and to what cognitive extent. It was enough evidence for us to keep pushing further with this potential tool.”

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