A Matter of White Matter

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Concussions and brain performance have become important topics as of late, especially in the realm of football, where punishing hits can exceed the force of a severe car crash.

The problem, however, lies in diagnosing the true extent that concussions have affected the white matter in the brain. White matter is sort of like the subway line of the brain, connecting different regions that control vision, balance and other crucial functions. And while a scanner such as an MRI can assess physical damage to the brain, the technology to diagnose brain performance — the health of the white matter — is still in its infancy.

Last fall, concussion expert Dr. Russell Gore, director of vestibular neurology at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, visited Georgia Southern as part of the annual Norman Fries Distinguished Lectureship Series to discuss this technology in his talk, “Brain Injury and the Limits of Human Performance: From Fighter Planes to Football Games.”

Gore says most of the early concussion technology sought to monitor exposure: the amount of gravitational force (g’s) sustained in a hit. And while this technology has certainly given researchers a much clearer picture of exposure, there are still questions left to be answered.

“It makes perfect sense at face value that there would be a direct correlation between the force of an impact to someone’s head and the injury that they would then sustain,” Gore said. “But what we found in terms of the research side is that hasn’t panned out. It’s very difficult to set a threshold in terms of what exposure actually means something, and there are so many other factors involved.”

While some people might be able to sustain repeated hits at 90 g’s, others might be concussed at 60 g’s. The differences could be physiology, genetics or a host of other factors. In order to overcome these variables, Gore and other researchers have been in search of technologies that would accurately assess brain performance. These technologies would not only help football players on the field, but could also help fighter pilots who routinely experience 4 g’s and greater in combat, as well as soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These emerging technologies and assessments range from elaborate virtual reality simulations for soldiers to modified video games that assess balance and eye movements — the latter of which has been developed at Georgia Southern. Nicholas Murray, Ph.D., assistant professor of Concussion Research at the University, and his team used a soccer heading game on the Nintendo Wii® along with a monocular eye-tracking device to measure brain performance.

“They are doing a fantastic job,” Gore said of Murray and his team. “One of the things that interests me the most is when folks are pulling off-the-shelf technologies and they’re finding uses for them in this space.”

Gore says these off-the-shelf technologies are exciting because they are affordable and commercially viable. He and a team at Georgia Tech have been developing their own systems and optics for brain performance measurement, spending over three years and millions of dollars to develop a prototype. And now that the military hopes to use them in their assessments, the technology will still cost $3,000 to $4,000 to produce each unit.

“So what we are shifting toward is more commercially available technology,” he said. “And to me that’s really exciting.” — Doy Cave

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