UA researchers, athletes work to develop concussion education app

Published: Sep. 28, 2015 at 10:50 PM MST|Updated: Nov. 24, 2015 at 12:45 AM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Concussions on the football field are getting a lot of national attention.

University of Arizona researchers are working to find a way to increase athletes' awareness and understanding of concussions, help them to learn the symptoms, as well as teach them why it's so important to report the injury.

This comes as the UA football team deals with a head injury from this weekend's crushing loss.

Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez told reporters on Monday, Sept. 28 that quarterback Anu Solomon suffered a concussion during the game against UCLA the previous Saturday.

Solomon was not allowed to finish the game.

Many athletes don't know the symptoms of concussion, which can come on slowly and over a few days.

Even if they did, they might not report that they're hurt because they fear they'll be pulled from the game.

UA medical and engineering researchers are teaming up with the UA Athletics Department to develop a smart phone app that is designed to help athletes and U.S. military personnel recognize the signs of concussion and to understand the importance of reporting they might be hurt.

The UA is hoping to win the NCAA Mind Matters Challenge, which is part of an NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense $30 million joint initiative.

Injuries on the field can have long-term effects far beyond the walls of the stadium.

They are effects that researchers want to defend against.

UA football player Jason Sweet tested the app technology at the Engineering Building, by holding a viewer up to his eyes.

The viewing device is made up of a smart phone and Google Cardboard, which offers the user a chance to experience a virtual reality.

Sweet reported what he saw to UA Associate Professor of Systems and Industrial Engineering Dr. Ricardo Valerdi.

"Depth perception's good," Sweet said.

"So the idea in this scenario you can see clearly. All your senses are there, reaction time. But if you had a concussion, you would start to see blurry, maybe delayed reaction time," Valerdi said.

"We're using virtual reality so that we can immerse them in a scene - actually a variety of scenes across different sports so that they can really feel what a concussion could be like if they were to get one," Valerdi explained. "The idea is, at the end, they will be much more aware about what a concussion is and they will be more likely to report it."

The app the research team is developing would not prevent the injury, but prevent worse damage.

Research shows the brain can heal itself if it's allowed to, if it's not hit over and over again.

"We want to give the brain every opportunity to repair itself without actually undergoing additional damage from a second injury or some other secondary insult," said Dr. Jonathan Lifshitz of the UA College of Medicine in Phoenix and a member of the team. "We want to limit the impact of combined injuries that may irreparably damage an individual, an athlete, and change the trajectory of their life as a result of brain damage."

Especially in sports, where the athletes don't want to be sidelined by injury, it's all about education.

"If you have a concussion and you continue to play and take more hits, you get significantly worse. You feel worse. And we also have good data that points to your symptoms last a lot longer so you're out a lot longer," said Dr. Randy Cohen, UA Associate Athletic Director for Medical Services.

That's one reason athletes could be more likely to report an injury.

Another is this: Football won't last forever, but brain damage? We'll, you just don't know.

"You're going to have a family to take care of for another 50 to 60 years additionally. So are you going to be able to perform those duties or are you going to be limited because of trauma you've received in your football career?" Sweet said. "If they know truthfully the impact that's going to have on their future, then that gives them the ability to report that and they'll be less reluctant to report."

The UA received $25,000 to develop the ideas that helped it reach the second round of the challenge.

In this part of the contest, the UA will be given $75,000 to develop a prototype.

Valerdi said the first version of the app will cover football, soccer, baseball and softball.

He says other sports, such as wrestling, could be added later.

The app could be used for athletes in several college sports, and eventually in youth athletics.

The university could know early next year whether its app is picked to help hundreds of thousands of student athletes and military members.

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