Researchers pioneer virtual reality to help athletes after concussions

January 14, 2013
Penn State pioneers virtual reality to help athletes after concussions
Realistic 3-D computer generated environments enable the athlete to feel fully immersed in cyber-imagery.

Penn State may be the first institution to use virtual reality to protect student athletes from the very real consequences of concussions. University researchers in kinesiology, information technology and sports medicine are using the technology to investigate cognitive changes beyond the limits of typical diagnostic tests.

Sam Slobounov, director of Sport Concussion Research Services, and Elena Slobounov, lead applications programmer in Research Computing and Cyberinfrastructure, have been partnering with Penn State's Director of , Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, to design rehabilitative software for athletes at Penn State for more than a decade. One of the crowning achievements of their work is a National Institute of Health funded Virtual Reality (VR) lab in Rec Hall.

The lab is Penn State's latest, most sophisticated tool to investigate and treat traumatic in student-athletes. More than 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually, and the likelihood of suffering a concussion while playing a contact sport can be as high as 19 percent per year.

Penn State's current approach to the growing concussion crisis is to administer baseline tests at the beginning of every season for high injury prone athletes and measure normal cognitive function. Many of these assessments involve , and feature realistic 3-D computer generated environments that enable the athlete to feel fully immersed in cyber-imagery.

In the lab, the participant wears a special headset and stands on a platform in front of a 12-foot by 10-foot screen, then navigates with a joystick through a simulation of hallways and rooms, a 3-D elevator and more. Researchers assess using electroencephalogram (EEG), balance, memory, attention and reaction time tests.

By comparing participant's performance in the simulation before and after trauma, medical professionals can determine the severity of the injury.

The project comes at a time when the discussion over concussion analysis and treatment has been gathering steam nationwide. Professional athletes and organizations such as the NFL, NCAA, and Big Ten Conference have recently moved toward more formal protocols to recognize and treat sports-related brain trauma.

This attention to the consequences of concussions is essential to maintaining the health of players both in the game and later in life.

Sports fans are likely familiar with Sebastianelli and his medical staff rushing onto the field to examine injured players during a Nittany Lions football game. In these first moments, trainers look for physical symptoms like blurred vision, nausea, memory loss or slurred speech when diagnosing brain injury.

However, a critical concern is also whether an athlete has had a previous concussion. A second impact coming within days of an initial blow can cause cerebral edema and herniation, leading to collapse and even death within minutes. Trainers also know that multiple concussions, over time, can result in long-term neurological deficits that can mimic advanced stage Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

While both fans and players may want the game to go on, it is important for everyone to take the risk of brain injury seriously. According to Slobounov, who also serves as a professor in Penn State's Kinesiology department, it's essential the athlete doesn't return to play before they are fully recovered, because decreased reaction time could make them susceptible to new injuries.

Fortunately, the increased awareness of governments and professional organizations is a step in the right direction. "We're working to make it more socially acceptable for athletes to report concerns about themselves or their fellow team members and have instituted baseline cognitive testing both before and after a concussion takes place," Sebastianelli added. "This type of support is essential to saving lives—and athletic careers."

Also essential are better data, and Penn State's VR lab is on the leading edge.

Slobounov said that VR assessment is an enormous breakthrough. "To my knowledge, Penn State is unique in using VR to solve the brain injury epidemic. Because of this work, national organizations such as the Department of Defense and the NFL are beginning to take interest."

The Slobonouvs and Sebastianelli ultimately wish to use their success in analysis to advocate mandatory testing and assessment for high school athletes.

Explore further: AMSSM issues position statement on sport-related concussions

More information: To learn more, visit Stream magazine at stream.it.psu.edu/feature/v1/i1

Related Stories

AMSSM issues position statement on sport-related concussions

January 7, 2013
Athletes with concussions must be held out of practice or play until all symptoms have resolved, to avoid the risk of further injury during the vulnerable period before the brain has recovered. That's among the key recommendations ...

Concussion testing makes everyone tired

December 6, 2011
Testing athletes for concussions may induce mental fatigue in subjects whether or not they have a head injury, according to Penn State researchers.

Study flags over-reliance on computer tests in return-to-plan decisions after concussion

February 2, 2012
A new study by researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus and Pace University is critical of the widespread use of computerized neuropsychological tests (CNT) in decisions regarding when athletes can return ...

Female and younger athletes take longer to overcome concussions

May 8, 2012
New research out of Michigan State University reveals female athletes and younger athletes take longer to recover from concussions, findings that call for physicians and athletic trainers to take sex and age into account ...

Many high school football players not concerned about concussions

October 22, 2012
Despite an increase in media attention, as well as national and local efforts to educate athletes on the potential dangers of traumatic brain injuries, a new study found that many high school football players are not concerned ...

High Schools with athletic trainers have more diagnosed concussions, fewer overall injuries

October 22, 2012
High schools with athletic trainers have lower overall injury rates, according to a new study, "A Comparative Analysis of Injury Rates and Patterns Among Girls' Soccer and Basketball Players," presented Oct. 22 at the American ...

Recommended for you

Sugar not so sweet for mental health

July 27, 2017
Sugar may be bad not only for your teeth and your waistline, but also your mental health, claimed a study Thursday that was met with scepticism by other experts.

Could insufficient sleep be adding centimeters to your waistline?

July 27, 2017
Adults in the UK who have poor sleep patterns are more likely to be overweight and obese and have poorer metabolic health, according to a new study.

Vitamin E-deficient embryos are cognitively impaired even after diet improves

July 27, 2017
Zebrafish deficient in vitamin E produce offspring beset by behavioral impairment and metabolic problems, new research at Oregon State University shows.

The role of dosage in assessing risk of hormone therapy for menopause

July 27, 2017
When it comes to assessing the risk of estrogen therapy for menopause, how the therapy is delivered—taking a pill versus wearing a patch on one's skin—doesn't affect risk or benefit, researchers at UCLA and elsewhere ...

Blowing smoke? E-cigarettes might help smokers quit

July 26, 2017
People who used e-cigarettes were more likely to kick the habit than those who didn't, a new study found.

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.