Predicting concussion in high-contact sports with a neck patch

A team of US researchers has developed a patch that, when worn on the back of the neck, may help predict concussion risk in high-contact sports like football or judo.

The flexible patch, called the FENG and described in a paper in Scientific Reports, senses the movement and acceleration of the neck – which has been shown to be linked to concussion risk.

There are currently devices that sit in an athlete’s helmet to track the same data, but these are bulky and can be inaccurate when the helmet moves.

“The sensor patches used in this work are placed directly on the neck region; which extends their use to sports that do not require the use of helmets, and eliminates false readings from helmet-only movements,” write the authors in their paper.

Drawing of back of person's head with patch attached, second panel shows head from the side looking backwards and forwards
The placement of the proposed patch, and the head movements that trigger it. Credit: Juan Pastrana

By contrast, the patches, which are made out of a polypropylene-based film, are 0.1 mm thick. The film contains iron atoms and it makes electrical pulses when placed under strain. These pulses can be used to figure out the movement of and strain on the neck.

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“FENG devices are self-powered sensors – i.e. they do not need an external electrical power source to operate, minimizing operation complications and safety hazards that other sensors can bring to an athlete,” write the authors.

The researchers tested their film by attaching it to a dummy which had a gyroscope and a range of sensors in its head. They then dropped this dummy repeatedly from a height of 60 centimetres, to simulate whiplash.

The neck patch results were consistent with 90% of the more elaborate sensor readings inside the dummy.

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Photo of thin gold rectangle attached to reflective strips: concussion sensor device
The FENG: (d) is the completed device. Credit: Henry Dsouza

While physical impact is responsible for a lot of concussion, the patch can also spot non-impact concussions – like whiplash.

“Significant brain damage can still occur without impact or collision,” write the authors.

“High-acceleration head movements; typically referred to as ‘whiplashes’, which can occur in non-contact sports, can also generate brain injuries such as concussions.”

The researchers are now hoping to test their patch in real conditions, on athletes playing sports.

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