High Tech for Brain Health: Concussion Baseline Testing

By Published On: August 21, 2018

A California high school is taking a unique approach to concussion baseline testing by using EEG scans with its athletes.

Concussion baseline tests are common in high school athletics. But JSerra High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., is taking a unique approach by using an electroencephalogram (EEG) scan for their testing. They are believed to be one of the only high schools in the nation using this tool.

“Think of a hollow skull cap,” Kayla Gradillas, ATC, Director of Athletic Training at JSerra, told Fox Sports. “We use saline as a conduction that goes on their head and they sit in front of a portable computer. They can see their brainwaves that are active. It’s pretty cool because they can look around, blink their eyes and see how the brain waves change.

“Then we ask them to do a 4-minute test where they close their eyes and they have a headset on where they’re listening to sounds and their brain reacts to those noises,” she continues. “It’s recording how quickly and at what voltage the brain is reacting to those sounds. Then we’re also getting a finger reaction time after they hear an odd sound. It will be something like beep, beep, beeeeeeep—an off-beat sound. Then they click when they hear the off-beat and we get a reaction time.”

The device JSerra uses is called a WAVi scanner. Similar to other baseline tests, it captures mental processing speed, memory capacity, and reaction time. What sets the WAVi apart is that it also gauges vital signs and can help with differentiating whether concussion-related symptoms are also occurring with reduced brain activity. This is important because many of these symptoms —such as headaches, ringing in the ears, or nausea—can occur due to whiplash, dehydration, or neck strain.

The WAVi scan was originally developed by researchers at the University of Colorado to focus on brain wellness. Some of its uses included detecting anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression. After years of this research, the WAVi was also incorporated in blind studies with the Colorado football and soccer teams.

“They did a preseason and postseason scan and if [the student-athletes] were suspected of a concussion, they gave them a scan during the season and measured it,” said Jeff Wadstrom, Founder and President of Baslyne, the company that distributes WAVi. “What they found is when someone had a concussion, it shut down the voltage in the brain by 30-50 percent but when it heals, it shot right back up to baseline. What we found was a high percentage of [student-athletes] were being returned to play before they were fully healed.”

At JSerra, the decision to incorporate EEG scans came down to the accuracy of the test.

“This test is more comprehensive than anything I’ve seen period,” said JSerra Athletic Director Chris Ledyard. “Having been in this field for a long time, there’s always a certain level of subjectivity when you’re measuring concussions. However, what this did is go right back to the brain scan.”

The JSerra football players will be the first to undergo the EEG scan, with hopes of expanding the testing to both athletes and non-athletes. The cost is about $50 per test.

“I would love to have it offered to anyone that wants it on campus,” Gradillas said. “Make it mandatory for all my athletes, but allow it for anyone that wants it because kids are kids. They go skateboarding and they may hit their heads and not be one of my athletes or get in a car accident.”

Although the WAVi will be helpful, determining when athletes suffer concussions will still be difficult. Gradillas relies on the relationships she’s built with players to ease this process.

“The biggest thing that helps me with potentially thinking there may be a concussion is the fact that I know my players before they become my patients,” she said. “I know what their normal is, I know what they normally look like, I know how they normally move, I know how they normally act and that is a big, huge piece.”

Building that kind of relationship is important, both for Gradillas to recognize when a student-athlete might need help and for the student-athletes to get to know her. But once it’s established, athletes may be more willing to turn to her for help.

“Traditionally people look at the athletic trainer as you’re trying to pull me out of my sport,” Gradillas said. “I have to develop a relationship with them so that they know I actually want you out there playing and when I’m pulling you, I’m doing it because I want to prevent something. I want you to be OK later on in life as well.”

Curious on how concussion guidelines have changed in recent years? Read our article, “Updated Approach to Concussion Guidelines.”

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