Walking and thinking at the same time can be difficult for persons who've suffered concussions, and scientists hope to use that multitasking challenge — measured by a simple radar system — to quickly screen individuals who may have suffered brain injuries.
By asking an individual to walk a short distance while saying the months of the year in reverse order, American researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) can determine if that person is impaired and possibly suffering from a concussion. The simple test, which could be performed on the sideline of a sporting event or on a battlefield, has the potential to help coaches and commanders decide if athletes and soldiers are ready to engage in activity again.
By asking an individual to walk and talk in front of this radar system, GTRI researchers (left to right) Amy Sharma, Kristin Bing, and Jennifer Palmer can determine if that person is impaired.
Gary Meek photo
"When a person with a concussion performs cognitive and motor skill tasks simultaneously, they have a different gait pattern than a healthy individual," says GTRI research engineer and SPIE member Jennifer Palmer. "We can identify those anomalies in a person's walk with radar."
More than a million concussions and other mild traumatic brain injuries are reported each year in the United States alone. Catching them right after they happen can improve treatment and prevent further injury or other long-term health issues.
Although symptoms can last for weeks or months following an injury, diagnosing concussions can still be difficult. Most current detection methods focus purely on cognitive impairment and do not assess accompanying motor skill deterioration.
Details of GTRI's technique, which simultaneously examines a person's cognitive and motor skills using a radar system similar to those used by police for measuring the speed of vehicles, were presented in April at SPIE Defense, Security, and Sensing. GTRI research engineers Kristin Bing and Amy Sharma, principal research scientist (retired) Eugene Greneker, and research scientist Teresa Selee also worked on the project, which is supported by the GTRI Independent Research and Development program.
For their study, the GTRI research team compared how 10 healthy individuals walked normally and when impaired. For the impairment scenario, individuals wore goggles that simulated alcohol impairment. Past research has shown that concussion impairment is equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent.
The 10.5-gHz continuous-wave radar system provided information on the velocity of numerous parts of the body, including a person's foot kicks, and head and torso movements.
"By looking for differences in the gait patterns of normal and impaired individuals, we found that healthy individuals could be distinguished from impaired individuals wearing the goggles," Palmer explains. "Healthy individuals demonstrated a more periodic gait with regular and higher velocity foot kicks and faster torso and head movement than impaired individuals when completing a cognitive task."
In the future, the researchers plan to collect additional data from healthy individuals of different heights and weights, and from individuals exhibiting concussion symptoms according to neuropsychological screening tests performed at a hospital. They also plan to reduce the size of the system so that it becomes more practical to use.
"For the military, we envision the system could fit into a tough box so that commanders can have it in the field," Bing says. "They could simply press a button, connect the radar system to a laptop, and an easy-to-use interface would display the results and tell them whether their soldier is exhibiting signs of a concussion."
Approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be required before this system can be used to diagnose concussions.
The GTRI researchers' paper, "Detecting gait alterations due to concussion impairment with radar using information-theoretic techniques," is available from the SPIE Digital Library:spie.org/radarhead.
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