Could this portable device change how we diagnose brain injuries?

After an accident, doctors can quickly diagnose broken bones and strained muscles, but figuring out that a patient has a brain injury is an ongoing challenge. Traumatic brain injuries can happen even if the head is not struck directly, and many brain injuries aren’t accompanied by obvious bruising, swelling, or bleeding on the scalp. In the case of a relatively mild traumatic brain injury, often referred to as a concussion, the injury may not show up on a radiological scan of the brain. Traumatic brain injuries are thus often diagnosed based on a patient’s reported symptoms, such as headaches and cognitive difficulty.

This presents challenges for both doctors and patients. Since recent studies have found that certain drug-based interventions work best soon after a brain injury is detected, doctors want to be able to diagnose a brain injury right away. They also want to avoid the risk of second impact syndrome, a potentially fatal condition in which a repeated injury to the head after a traumatic brain injury can cause serious damage.

Now, a Maryland-based company called BrainScope claims that they have developed a technology that can detect concussions based on changes to brain waves. BrainScope relies on quantitative electroencephalography, or QEEG, to measure brain waves through a headset. Instead of relying on a doctor’s analysis of patterns to make a diagnosis, BrainScope uses a proprietary algorithm to flag abnormalities. The algorithm is run through a program on a smartphone attached to the sensor.

The problem: because doctors don’t have a preexisting objective test to prove that a patient has a concussion, it has been difficult from BrainScope to prove that its device works as intended. While it can reliably detect the same serious injuries that can be found on a CT scan, researchers need a way to figure out whether its results for milder brain injuries are accurate.

The FDA has given BrainScope permission to sell their device to emergency rooms and hospitals in the United States. It has also been awarded nearly $30 million in research contracts from the Department of Defense, in addition to backing from other funds and trusts. The device is approved for clinicians to use in determining whether or not a CT scan is needed; it is not currently approved as a diagnostic test for concussions.

Critics have warned that using “normative” data about brain wave patterns to diagnose concussions may be a flawed approach. Because most people do not undergo EEG signal scans as part of their regular medical care, a potentially injured person has no baseline scan to compare their results to after a possible brain injury. Other conditions, such as taking certain medications, can also change a person’s EEG signal.

If you suspect that you have a concussion, see a doctor immediately. Even though no objective scan exists for a mild brain injury, your doctor can review your symptoms and send you in for a scan if he or she suspects that you have a more serious injury. If your traumatic brain injury was the result of an accident or negligence, it may be time to speak with a personal injury attorney about your legal rights.

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