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Scientists use radar to detect concussion

By asking an individual to walk a short distance in front of a radar system while saying the months of the year backwards, researchers might be able to diagnose brain injuries.

Most of us don't have to worry about getting a concussion on a daily basis. But plenty do (think hockey and football players, infantrymen, etc.), and without quick diagnosis, can risk long-term brain damage if they go back into the field too soon.

Research engineers Amy Sharma, Kristin Bing, and Jennifer Palmer (left to right) say this radar system helps them determine if someone is possibly suffering from a concussion. Gary Meek

A new screening method developed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute could make fast and easy diagnosis, right on the sidelines, far more common. The technique, which examines a person's cognitive and motor skills at the same time, will be presented this week at the SPIE Defense, Security and Sensing conference in Orlando, Fla.

Using a simple radar system--the kind police use to measure the speed of vehicles--the researchers found that they were able to pick up on differences between normal walking patterns and those impaired by alcohol, which has been found to have a similar effect on walking as concussion impairment.

To be clear, this preliminary study is just that, preliminary, with a sample size too small to offer information that is more than anecdotal. But the findings have given the researchers enough data to want to test their approach further.

In the study, each of 10 healthy individuals performed four 30-second walking tests: first, walking normally; second, walking while saying the months of the year backwards; third, walking while wearing goggles that simulate alcohol impairment; and fourth, walking while wearing those goggles and saying the months backwards.

In each test, researchers used a 10.5-gigahertz continuous wave radar to measure the velocity of anything in view--including foot kicks and head movement--as each participant walked away from the system, turned around, and walked back toward it.

"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," says research engineer Jennifer Palmer. "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."

Using information-theoretic techniques, the team was able to detect similarities and differences in data without having to align specific body parts, and was even able to recognize gait anomalies without first measuring a person's normal gait.

Perhaps most interesting in their findings is that, without the cognitive component (saying the months in reverse), a healthy individual's gait pattern was not statistically different when wearing and not wearing the goggles, indicating that the cognitive component could be a key element in conjunction with motor measurements.

The researchers say their next step is to increase their study to include healthy individuals of different heights and weights, as well as individuals exhibiting concussion symptoms according to neuropsychological screening tests performed at a hospital. They also hope to make the radar system smaller so that it is more mobile on the sidelines of, say, battlefields and football fields.