University of Calgary developing handheld concussion sensor for sideline use

CALGARY — The University of Calgary is developing technology that can indicate whether an athlete is concussed from a pinprick of blood.

The goal is a cheap, portable device that detects and monitors a brain injury within a couple hours of trauma.

Former Calgary Stampeder offensive lineman Jeff Pilon said the innovation could have changed his football career had it been available on the sidelines prior to his retirement in 2010.

“I probably would have said ‘hey, can you test me here? Have a look,’” Pilon said Tuesday. “It could have changed my ways a little bit.”

The 42-year-old from Ottawa estimates he sustained around 20 concussions in college and pro football.

“I never told anybody about it, unless I was physically (knocked) out and it was noticed,” he said.

Pilon said if he’d been presented with science telling him he was concussed, he might have taken more practices or games off to recover.

The university’s engineering and medical schools are collaborating on a handheld sensor the size of a smartphone that measures proteins and small molecules known to indicate that an injury is present in the central nervous system.

The process is similar to a diabetic taking a pinprick of blood and inserting the sample into a glucose meter.

The creators say the sample is taken onsite and the result can be known as quickly as 30 minutes.

So the practical scenario is samples taken on the sidelines could potentially clear athletes to return to the field before the game is over, or take them out for treatment and recovery.

“The way it is diagnosed now is mostly based on questions asked of the patient, as there is no objective measure to test for a concussion,” said Dr. Amir Sanati-Nezhad, an assistant professor at the Schulich School of Engineering.

The sensor itself is about a year from going to market and could cost as little as $8 depending upon improvements, according to Sanati-Nezhad, but first more research is needed on which biomarkers in the body most accurately indicate brain injury.

“There is a lot of debate and discussion in terms of which biomarker is the best for concussion and which is not,” Sanati-Nezhad said.

“That discussion is still ongoing. We are actually waiting to use this device in clinical trials.”

The diagnostic tool could have applications beyond sport to emergency rooms and paramedics and also for monitoring recovery from brain injuries, said Dr. Chantal Debert, an associate professor at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“This is translational medicine right?” she said. “Taking technology to the clinical field, which is very hard and rare.

“When it happens, it’s super-exciting because we’re taking a device that’s novel and cutting edge and applying it to an area that is screaming for help, change, for diagnostic techniques.”

Pilon said he was a gadget guy in the Stampeder locker room, always trying out widgets to help him be a better player.

He believes this tool can help team doctors in onsite concussion diagnosis and treatment, as well as inform players about their brain health.

“It’s a tool I think would be good for any sports team,” he said. “What’s going on around contact sport now, I think it’s definitely going to help the medical field, the trainers and the clubs.”

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