New Radar Device Spots Concussions by How Patients Walk

Concussions are tricky. More than 1 million of these brain injuries happen in the United States every year, but because symptoms vary widely, they're difficult to diagnose. Coaches and sports doctors constantly face this dilemma: Should a football player shake off his harmless head bump and get back in the game, or should he stay out in case he is suffering from serious brain trauma?

Soon a radar detector may allow for quick diagnoses of concussions on the sidelines.

The new device, developed by researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), utilizes the fact that concussion victims have difficulty thinking and walking at the same time. While they may be able to do one task or the other without difficulty, combining the two activities is too challenging for a concussed brain.

"When a person with a concussion performs cognitive and motor skill tasks simultaneously, they have a different gait pattern than a healthy individual, and we can identify those anomalies in a person's walk with radar," GTRI research engineer Jennifer Palmer explained in a press release.

For its study, the GTRI research team compared how 10 healthy individuals walked while reciting the months of the year in reverse order under both normal and impaired conditions. For the impairment scenario, individuals wore goggles that simulated alcohol impairment; past research has shown that concussions impair brain function equivalently to a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 percent.

"We're using a 10.5-gigahertz continuous wave radar, which is similar to a police officer's radar gun that measures the speed of a car," said GTRI engineer Kristin Bing. "The data we collect tells us the velocity of everything that's in the field of view of the radar at that time, including a person's foot kicks and head and torso movements."

Palmer said: "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. 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."

Because concussions appear to affect everyone's gait the same way, the new radar device can recognize a gait anomaly without requiring that an individual's normal gait be measured before the person became impaired, the researchers said. Simply put, the device requires no calibration.

The researchers plan to develop a portable version of their radar detector, which could be used in hospitals, in military combat situations, and on the sidelines of sporting events.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover.