Aug 26, 2016
UA App Simulates Concussion

This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the proper treatment of concussions is getting athletes to report the injury. A new app called BrainGainz hopes to overcome this with virtual reality.

Created by a team of professors and student-athletes at the University of Arizona and owned by Concussion Discussion, LLC, the app replicates many of the symptoms associated with concussion for the user. Since it allows athletes to experience and intimately understand the effects of head injuries, the hope is they will be more apt to report them immediately when they occur during practices or games.

Ricardo Valerdi, PhD, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at UA, initiated the project last fall after learning about the Mind Matters Challenge, a joint NCAA-U.S. Department of Defense venture that awards grants to support concussion-related research. “As an educator and engineer who’s involved in sports as well, it was a perfect combination of my interests,” says Valerdi, who serves as a sports analytics consultant to several MLB teams. “I saw it as an opportunity to help student-athletes first and foremost, but also to work on arguably the biggest public health issue of our time: concussions.”

To tackle the different aspects of creating the app, Valerdi brought together a multifaceted team of professors, physicians, and student-athletes. These included Hirsch Handmaker, MD, former Medical Director of the Oakland A’s and founder and Managing Member of Conquering Concussions, LLC, Jonathan Lifshitz, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience at UA, and current and former Wildcat football players Jason Sweet, Christian Boettcher, and Scooby Wright.

Wright drafted the original storyboard for BrainGainz, which is set in Arizona Stadium and takes the perspective of a player receiving a punt and being tackled by Wright or Sweet. After going down, the user begins to experience some of the symptoms of a concussion, such as blurred vision and slowed reaction time. He or she is then given the choice to continue playing, causing the symptoms to worsen, or take a break and recover. The app can be used on any smartphone and viewed through Google Cardboard, a virtual reality tool. “You literally see, feel, and experience a concussion in real time,” says Sweet.

The immersive environment is what will get athletes to buy in and make the app effective, according to its creators. “Everything had to be realistic in order for college football players to believe in the app and learn to report their concussions when under stress,” says Sweet. “I think anyone who has had a concussion where they didn’t lose consciousness could attest that they still had the cognitive awareness to choose whether or not to report it. Generally, when your instincts kick in, they tell you to stay in the game. But BrainGainz is teaching athletes to report their concussions instead.”

After presenting the app to the NCAA in January, the UA team was awarded a $100,000 grant to further test and develop it, and they spent the spring making it as realistic and user-friendly as possible. BrainGainz is still in its testing stage, but the team hopes to release it to the public soon.

Their team’s next steps are to create and test similar apps for other sports, such as soccer, baseball, softball, and cheerleading. “We’re hoping to start a study in which we will give some Pac-12 student-athletes access to the app and monitor how often and how long they play it over the course of a season,” Valerdi explains. “Then, we’ll compare their concussion reporting rates to student-athletes who won’t have used the app. The idea is that those who used BrainGainz will have slightly better reporting rates.”

The UA team is also working to promote the app, as well as the idea that hiding the signs of a concussion is not cool. Using #BrainGainz on Twitter, they are asking athletes to pledge to report any concussions they suffer in the future.

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