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Wearable neck sensor may help predict risk of concussion in high-impact sports

By Judy Packer-Tursman
Wearable neck sensor may help predict risk of concussion in high-impact sports
A sensor patch worn on the back of the neck may help measure whiplash and predict the risk of concussion in high-impact sports, new research suggests. File Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

June 23 (UPI) -- A sensor patch worn on the back of the neck may help measure whiplash and predict the risk of concussion in high-impact sports such as football, new research suggests.

The study was published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

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Nearly 4 million concussions related to sports and recreational activities occur annually in the United States, but as many as 50% of concussions may go unreported, experts say.

"The end goal ... is to have wearable, untethered patches that can provide real-time information about the head and neck movement of the athlete," Nelson Sepúlveda Alancastro, principal investigator for the study, told UPI.

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He is a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at Michigan State University. His doctoral student, Henry Dsouza, ran the experiments and completed the vast majority of the analysis, Alancastro said.

In their work, a small and flexible device was able to detect sudden neck strain, such as whiplash, using a test dummy.

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The researchers developed a novel patch sensor using a film layer of thermoplastic material that produces electrical energy when physically touched or pressure is applied, a news release said.

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The electrical signal that is produced is proportional to the physical strain on the neck and can be used to estimate the acceleration and velocity of sudden neck movement, which are two important markers for predicting concussion.

Currently, devices are available to help predict concussion, such as accelerometer-based sensors that detect motion when placed in an athlete's helmet. But these devices "are bulky and can give false readings when the helmet moves on the person's head," according to the release.

To test the sensor patch, the researchers applied the device to the back of the neck of a dummy that had accelerator-based sensors and a gyroscope inside its head.

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They then dropped the dummy from a suspended height of 24 inches to simulate whiplash, and found the sensor patch's output "had a strong positive correlation of 90% with results from the sensors inside the head," the release said.

"The original idea was motivated by creating a wearable, untethered patch which can transmit information about the head accelerations experienced by a high-contact sport athlete," Alancastro said.

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But the patch may also find applications "in monitoring structural health of underground pipes," he said, "and we are also looking at applications for monitoring underwater species."

Alancastro said current technologies used to monitor head movements are based on helmeted devices. These often provide inaccurate readings since they are translating helmet movements -- which do not necessarily represent head or body movements.

He said the researchers didn't focus on a single patch. "​We must have tested dozens of patches, each time improving reliability, which is one of the major current bottlenecks. We are also working on the self-sensing capabilities of the device," he said.

He described the newly devised sensor as more comfortable and also likely less costly than the currently used sensors for predicting concussion.

"They are much cheaper than current accelerometers used in helmeted devices, and it should not feel different than having a 'Band-Aid' on the neck," he said.

Alancastro acknowledged that it is still possible to get false readings from his team's patch.

"There are many sources of noise and false electric signals, and this is something we are working on," he said. "How can we use the patch readings to obtain an accurate description of the head and neck movements? We have many different ideas and approaches in mind."

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