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Innovative New Methods for Assessing Concussion

Media release
Monday 10 October, 2005

Innovative New Methods for Assessing Concussion

Every year more than 20,000 New Zealanders sustain a mild head injury or concussion. However, often it is difficult for clinicians to determine exactly how badly they have been injured, or how well they will recover, and how quickly.

Researchers at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago, have developed a world-first computerised assessment programme which can measure the effect of concussion on brain function, and how this type of injury might affect patients over the next year, as they recover.

Post-Doctoral Fellow Marcus Heitger, and colleagues at the Van der Veer Institute for Parkinson’s and Brain Research, have been working on this novel method for the last three years. It could revolutionise the prognosis of recovery after mild closed head injury, and be developed into a package that can be sold to health care providers world-wide.

“This is a good example of how health research can transfer to specific clinical applications,” says Marcus. “We’re not at that stage yet, but we are well down the pathway to refining what we’ve already established through our research.”

Heitger’s innovative research has found two things. That eye movements and eye hand co-ordination can be affected following concussion, and secondly that by measuring eye-movements and eye-hand co-ordination in the first week after injury, scientists can gauge how severely brain function may be affected in patients with this type of injury.

This is because eye movements can provide sensitive indicators of neurological injury to the brain, if they are not working normally. The programme aims to predict how well patients will recover over the next year, and whether they need to be managed more closely.

“Around 20% of people have significant ongoing problems following concussion. It’s not an injury to be shrugged off and ignored. Existing diagnostic methods often find it difficult to predict who is likely to have ongoing problems, and need therapy or more careful management,” says Marcus Heitger.

Often people with health problems following concussion, such as ongoing headaches, sleep disturbance, dizziness, fatigue, anxiety and problems with memory and concentration, don’t understand why they are not functioning normally at home or at work, and sometimes they are picked up by the health system later than they should be.

Employers may not be sympathetic to absence from work without clear clinical evidence that something is wrong, while ACC may be reluctant to accept that a person is ill and not be functioning normally.

The investigations at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences are an important step towards improving the assessment and management of patients with mild head trauma.

Marcus Heitger and his colleagues are now looking to extend and reconfirm their findings, and their innovative programme. They are covering a much bigger sample of patients, investigating the link between impairment in motor performance and neural damage after concussion using MRI scans, and examining eye movements in people who are having problems longer than four weeks after injury.

This research is partly funded by the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation.


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