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Stanford researchers start concussion study with high school athletes

By Rebecca Aydin

A Palo Alto company is teaming up with a Stanford health care network and several regional high schools for a study that will use virtual reality headsets to track eye movements to better spot concussions.

The Golden State Warriors, Pac-12 universities and several hospitals around the country already use the technology from the company, SyncThink.

But the four-year study on high school athletes, which begins Monday in partnership with Stanford Children’s Health, will mark the first use of the technology in an area of increasing concern: the health effects of head hits on youths, whose brains are still developing.

“There’s more and more research that shows that injuries to younger people are more impactful on their health later in life,” said Laura Yecies, CEO of SyncThink. “If you have an undiagnosed injury, it can have dramatic consequences later if it’s not taken care of.”

Menlo School, Sacred Heart and Archbishop Mitty are participating in the study, which could eventually include up to 10 schools. Researchers record results for eye-tracking and as well as a swath of other tests for boys’ football teams.

When a player experiences a concussion, or potentially even a volley of hits that is significant but does not result in a concussion, it may affect vision,even in subtle ways.

The Eye-Sync device, which costs $6,000 for educational institutions and $12,000 annually for the accompanying software, consists of a Samsung VR headset modified to incorporate eye-tracking cameras. In the one test, infrared light is shone on the eyes, and the camera reads the eye position. Concussion patients’ eyes often jump ahead of the light as they track it, according to Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, founder of SyncThink.


The $5 million in funding for the study comes from a $14.5 million donation by the Taube family, which has a substantial fortune from real estate, to fund research at Stanford on concussions.

Dr. Gerald Grant, one of the study’s main researchers and director of the Stanford Children’s Health Concussion Program, emphasized that eye tracking is not a definitive determinant of a concussion diagnosis. The study seeks to look at diagnostic measures to see which are valid in various age groups. Besides eye-tracking, these include vestibular balance and working memory tests as well as data received by an accelerometer mouth guard, which detects and records the force and direction of a blow to the head.

Ghajar, who is also a neurosurgeon at the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center, sees plenty of athletes suffering from concussions.

Ghajar has found that a force to the side of the head, making it move from side to side or rotate, is more likely to produce a concussion than a blow that moves it back and forward.


“What I’m hoping to see is, (when) they have an athlete with a concussion, they’ll notice there’s a certain kind of movement and velocity affecting their brain,” he said.

“What I’d like to see at the end of the day, and I really believe this, is that the neck is producing the concussion; it’s whiplash of the brain,” Ghajar said. “It’s kind of rotational movements around the brain and brain stem; the brain stem produces the concussion. Hopefully with this research, we will know what that movement is, and that may lead to prevention — maybe some kind of neck brace that prevents that kind of movement, and there wouldn’t be concussions anymore. Wouldn’t that be great?”