Like millions of other Americans, Shannon McCarthy and Ronnie Johnson watched the Women’s World Cup semi-final on TV last week and cringed when they saw the head collision between U.S. midfielder Morgan Brian and German forward Alexandra Popp as they leaped for the ball. Both ended up on the ground, Popp with a bloody gash.
Four minutes later, both were back in the game after quick sideline examinations by doctors. Brian said she was asked to touch her finger to her nose, follow a moving finger, and to repeat the words “car,’’ “apple,’’ “elbow,’’ “ball’’ and “house’’ three times.
McCarthy and Johnson watched with greater concern than the average fan because they play soccer for the University of Miami. McCarthy is a defender, Johnson a forward. Neither has ever had a concussion, but they’ve had teammates forced to quit the sport as a result of head injuries.
That is why Wednesday morning, McCarthy and Johnson were at the UM Hecht Athletic Center, testing concussion-detection goggles being developed by UM doctors and a Pittsburgh-based software company called Neuro Kinetics. The project is being largely funded by a $500,000 grant from the NFL, Under Armour and GE. The U.S. Department of Defense has also been involved, as the goggles can be used on the battlefield for soldiers with head trauma.
Hurricane football, soccer and volleyball players were being tested Wednesday. They were in an exam room where researchers were testing the goggles’ technology. This winter, men’s and women’s basketball players who volunteer to participate will join the study, and next spring, baseball players and club athletes in rugby and lacrosse will be tested.
A sample of 200 athletes is the goal, according to Dr. Mikhaylo Szczupak, one of the researchers working under project leader Dr. Michael Hoffer, a UM otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat) and former U.S. Navy captain who developed the technology during two tours in Iraq.
The goggles feature imbedded eye tracking and stimulus display and can detect brain injury by measuring eye movement and speed and symmetry of pupil dilation. This data helps determine at the site of injury whether an athlete is clear to return to the game or whether further medical attention is needed.
“Everything with technology is so much more innovative now, so to have computerized, concrete findings on the spot that seem super accurate can only make us athletes safer and better off in the long run,’’ said McCarthy.
“And it can fit in a backpack, so we can take it on road games, so there would never be an excuse for putting in a player who doesn’t belong on the field. I think it’s great. Rather than just doing a manual test, to be able to go into the locker room, put on these goggles and know for sure — not 50-50, not someone’s opinion — that’s going to help a lot of athletes.’’
When she was in high school, a club teammate suffered a concussion, was out for more than a year and eventually quit.
“She was stuck in a dark room for months, and when she came back out, she had to wear sunglasses and ear plugs, so it was really bad,’’ Johnson said. “She had gotten a concussion and then she kept playing and got hit again. People weren’t really monitoring it. When something happens, you have to make sure you’re OK before you go back in, which is why these goggles are really cool.’’
UM researchers will spend the next 18 months developing the goggles, then make a production model and hope for FDA approval. Their aim is three types of devices — a simple red light-green light version under $200 that could be used in youth sports, a more sophisticated model for college and pro sports and the most complex device to be used by physicians to aid with concussion treatment and clearance.
“Eye movement is one of the best ways to assess vestibular imbalance dysfunction, and that is what we are trying to achieve with these goggles,’’ Szczupak said. “We want to get objective data, hard numbers, so we can determine if athletes can return to play or not. We want to take the guesswork out of it, and so far, the athletes we have tested seem very enthusiastic about it.’’