New Orleans Saints tight end Coby Fleener has joined the athlete advisory board of SyncThink, a neuro-technology company that is pioneering the use of eye-tracking as a way to objectively measure key impairments related to brain injury of athletes on the sidelines in real time.
EYE-SYNC uses eye tracking to evaluate for ocular motor impairments and vestibular balance dysfunction, two common components of concussion injury. It can be done in 60 seconds, and helps medical professionals determine whether an athlete suspected of suffering a concussion should or shouldn't return to play. It does not diagnose concussions, but does help identify impairments associated with brain injury and aid in making a more informed medical decision. Fleener, a former Stanford tight end in his sixth NFL season, said anything that helps take the guesswork out of that decision is a step forward for both athletes and medical professionals.
"I am excited to work with SyncThink because I know first-hand the challenges they are facing and working to solve," said Fleener.
The EYE-SYNC technology was developed over a period of 15 years by Dr. Jam Ghajar, Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery and Director of the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center.
"The eyes are the window to the brain," said Ghajar. "They are always orienting or attending to the outside world and are essential for our interaction with the outside world. The way they move tells us much about the brain state."
According to Ghajar, asking the eyes to follow a moving target reveals the brain's ability to "attend" to the present moment.
"Concussion causes visual disorientation which can be detected quickly and reliably with eye tracking," he said.
Scott Anderson, former director of athletic training at Stanford and now chief customer officer for SyncThink, worked with Dr. Ghajar to bring the technology to the field. Anderson was initially introduced to the technology when enrolling students in a 10,000 person study intended to establish normative data.
"I was so impressed with its utility to identify impairment and subsequently follow athletes through the recovery process, I began advocating for its clinical use within our program," Anderson said. "As we began to understand the value of objective metrics in the decision making process for concussion diagnosis and recovery, we overhauled our concussion management protocol to reflect the use of eye tracking metrics to guide medical decision making."
The EYE-SYNC was integrated with Stanford football in 2015 and over the course of a few months was scaled to the university's remaining 35 sports programs.
Fleener often returns to Stanford in the offseason to train and work with Anderson. Their combined passion for disruptive technoliges led to conversations about EYE-SYNC and Fleener's interest was piqued.
"The biggest challenge to medical professionals and athletes working together is objectivity of tests," said Fleener. "With this technology, the medical staff can say, 'Here are these objective results for this test.' It's a huge help to give the athlete confidence, not only about when to sit out, but also when to go back in."
SyncThink has recently announced partnering with the Stanford University athletics program, Iowa State University, as well as the University of Texas, among others. Fleener contributes an additional on-field perspective to the technology team.
Anderson is quick to emphasize that the EYE-SYNC is not intended to specifically diagnose a concussion but rather to identify acute disorientation.
"If athletes are disoriented," Anderson said, "they cannot respond to the speed of a game and are at risk for further injury because they can't protect themselves. Our technology identifies this rapidly and informs the clinician the athlete should be removed for further testing."
Fleener is also excited about the opportunity for this technology to ultimately impact sports at the youth level.
"With this technology, you can make an assessment on the sideline and have a much better indication of whether the athlete should continue versus a parent or coach making the call," he said.