Eye-Spy a Concussion

Illustration by Avni Joshi

Illustration by Avni Joshi

Playing professional football is a dream many aspire towards but few succeed to achieve. After being signed by the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2015, NFL wide receiver Adrian Coxson had his big chance. Unfortunately, his dream suddenly came crashing down as soon as it began. After suffering a concussion during training camp, Coxson immediately retired, citing a neurologist who told him that one more hit could kill him (1). Concussions have become a recurring factor in football, with around 291 cases reported during the 2017 NFL season. Equally as concerning is the fact that concussions are often unable to be detected accurately. With this in mind, Palo Alto-based company Sync Think has developed Eye-Sync goggles, which are designed to more accurately determine whether a player has suffered a concussion.

While a concussion leads to short-term symptoms such as a temporary loss of consciousness and extreme pressure in the head, long-term effects include the possible onset of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease which leads to toxic Tau protein clumps build up as plaque in the brain, slowly killing brain cells (2). As aforementioned, concussions have become difficult to detect, as the changes it causes in the brain are gradual and not readily apparent. Additionally, Kim Harmon, a sports medicine professor at the University of Washington, states, the reluctance of patients to share their symptoms constrains the ability to diagnose patients, even though “subjective [evaluation] of concussions is most helpful” (3). With the creation of the Eye-Sync goggles, the possibility of patients circumventing the truth diminishes. To check for a concussion, the goggles evaluate a patient’s eye in a circular motion by placing a red dot on the pupil; this shows how the eye “synchronizes with the moving target across two synchronization metrics: radial (or spatial) variability and tangential (or timing) variability” (4). In short, the goggles work to understand the eye’s reaction time to the red dot and whether it can react within a span of 0.25 seconds.

Jam Ghajar, a neurosurgeon by practice and founder of the Sync-Think, says that designing goggles has been his priority for the past fifteen years (5). As the president of the Brain Trauma Foundation, he created SyncThink as a spinoff from the foundation, receiving a staggering $36 million grant from the Department of Defense in addition to $6.7 million in venture capital (V.C.) funding (6). When asked about his goal with Eye-Sync, Ghajar said, “I’m hoping we can really bring down the injury rates of athletes” (7). He added that before Eye-Sync, athletes were being unnecessarily held out of games because of a team’s inability to accurately predict a concussion, (8). With Eye-Sync, Ghajar explains, “Now you test their eye tracking and prediction, and if that’s normal you perform other tests like their balance functions. Everything normal? It’s a migraine. You give them some migraine medication, and they go back in and play” (9).

Since Eye-Sync goggles are gaining more recognition for their benefits, sports organizations, on both the collegiate and professional level, have invested in Eye-Sync as part of the routine health checkups on their players. In 2017, the Pac-12 Conference partnered with SyncThink to ensure that all member universities receive the Eye-Sync technologies to utilize with their Division I athletic programs. In addition to receiving the technology, the Pac-12 selected the University of Colorado at Boulder to be the coordinator of the Pac-12 Concussion Coordinating Unit, working in tandem with SyncThink to record concussion data among Pac-12 schools (10). Universities outside the Pac-12 currently using the technology include the University of Notre Dame, University of Texas at Austin, and Iowa State University.

When asked about the future expansion of Eye-Sync to evaluate more than just concussions, Scott Anderson, SyncThink’s Chief Customer Officer, said that “the long-term value of how teams will use this is as a proactive player management tool” (11).  Currently, the Golden State Warriors of the NBA have fulfilled this prediction posed by Anderson, as they use Eye-Sync not only to diagnose potential concussions but to manage fatigue during a strenuous 82-game season (12). Assistant general manager Kirk Lacob said that they plan to evaluate players every 20 games using Eye-Sync and then corroborate the results with the coaching staff to plan scheduled off-days for players (13). Lacob added, “We found that people don’t come into the season rested and ready to go. I think we need to do a better job getting to that point before camp starts” (14).

SyncThink’s next goal is to break into the NFL on the condition that EyeSync deems successful on the collegiate level. As SyncThink CEO Laura Yecies says, “It’s getting pretty ugly out there. It’s becoming very clear that there’s tremendous health impact from health injuries. Something has to be done, and I think we’re giving them a good tool” (15). Yecies claims that they are in talk with the NFL Players Association to implement technology as soon as possible before it’s too late (16). By expanding their bandwidth, SyncThink can hopefully revolutionize the way we look at concussions and give people like Adrian Coxson a way back into the sports they love.

Edited by: Chase Breimeier

Illustrated by: Avni Joshi

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