Brain injury detection on the hill?

Olympic Gold Medalist Torah Bright suffered three concussions in the month leading up to the Vancouver Games. New concussion-detection technology could prevent back-to-back head trauma. Getty Images

A handheld tool being developed to catch head injuries in the field could be a boon for skiers and snowboarders. Researchers from a range of disciplines working together at the Greensboro Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering in North Carolina are designing a portable device that can test for mild traumatic brain injury -- which can include a concussion -- on the spot, anywhere from a ski slope to the scene of a car accident.

Mild brain injuries may sound, well, mild -- but they're among the hardest things for doctors to diagnose, says Marinella Sandros, the researcher leading the project. And they can be trouble. If you shake off a good bell-ringing and keep skiing, you're more likely to fall again and re-injure yourself.

Repeated concussions have been linked to loss of memory and other brain functions, and years of hard hits can cause problems from dementia to depression to Parkinson's disease.

Sandros and her team are developing a device that would use a blood, saliva, or urine sample from a person with a suspected head injury. A chip will sense the presence of compounds in the body that the brain releases when it's injured -- a test that could be done quickly on the scene of an accident, whether on the hill or on the football field, and by anyone from military medics to first responders at an accident.

Catching concussions and other brain injuries right after they happen could prevent the risk of further injury. If head injuries can be looked at within the first few hours, treatment is much more effective.

It may be several seasons before skiers might see patrol wielding one of these, but researchers anticipate having a prototype by the end of 2011. A device may be widely available, following testing and clinical trials, within five years.

These days, people must often rely on subjective methods -- like whether a person is acting dazed or confused, or has balance problems--to spot mild brain injuries, says the University of North Carolina at Greensboro;s Kristine Lundgren, who is working on the project. Hospitals rely on methods like MRIs and CAT scans, which look at physical changes in the brain -- changes that often don't show up with a mild brain injury.

Tests looking at brain injuries from a molecular point of view require specialized equipment and training, and are primarily done in research labs. "What we're really looking to do is take out all of those complexities and package this in a way that's going to be much more usable on the spot," says Vince Henrich, the director of the Center for Biotechnology and Health Research at UNCG and a microbiologist on the project.

The researchers hope their device might be as widely available as automated external defibrillators (AEDs), which were once found only in hospitals but now have a place in many ski patrollers' first aid kids.