Wearable Neck Sensors May Help Predict the Risk Of Concussion In High-Impact Sports by Charles Watson

Posted on September 9, 2022

New research suggests that a sensor patch worn on the back of the neck can help measure whiplash and foresee the risk of concussion in high-impact sports such as football. Experts say that nearly 4 million concussions related to sports and recreational activities occur yearly in the United States, but more than 50% of concussions might go unreported.

The goal is to have wearable, untethered patches that can provide real-time information about the head and neck movement of the athlete. Using a test dummy, a small and flexible device could detect sudden neck strain, such as whiplash. A professor in the computer engineering and electrical department at Michigan State University and his doctoral student ran experiments and completed the vast majority of the analysis.

A news release said that the researchers developed a novel patch sensor using a film layer of a thermoplastic material that produces electrical energy when physically touched or pressure is applied. The electrical signal produced is proportional to the physical strain on the neck and can be used to guess the acceleration and velocity of sudden neck movement, two crucial ways for predicting concussion.

Currently, devices are available to help predict concussions, such as accelerometer-based sensors that detect motion when placed in an athlete's helmet. But these "are bulky devices " and can give false readings when the helmet moves on the person's head. A Q-collar that is FDA approved is available in the market for aiding in protecting the brain from effects of repeated sub-concussive head impacts. 

To test the sensor patch, researchers applied the device to the back of a dummy's neck with accelerator-based sensors and a gyroscope inside its head. They then released the dummy from a suspended height of 24 inches to simulate whiplash. It was found the sensor patch's output "had a strong positive association of 90% with results from the sensors inside the head.

The original idea was inspired by creating a wearable, untethered patch which can convey info about the head accelerations felt by a high-contact sport athlete. The current technologies used to monitor head movements are based on helmeted devices. These often provide inaccurate readings since they translate helmet movements -- which do not essentially represent head or body movements.

The researchers didn't concentrate on a single patch and tested dozens of patches, each time improving reliability. And also worked on the self-sensing capabilities of the device. The newly devised sensors are more comfortable and less costly than the currently used sensors for predicting concussions.

They are much cheaper than existing accelerometers used in helmeted devices, and it should not feel different than having a 'Band-Aid' on the neck, and acknowledged that getting false readings from his team's patch is still possible.

There are many causes of noise and false, electric signals, and this is something we are working on. How can the patch readings be used to describe the head and neck movements accurately? For that, there are many different ideas and approaches in mind.