Building a portable concussion detector using infrared lasers

Using infrared laser light and fiber optics, the device measures blood oxygen levels and cell metabolism through the forehead at the same time, to provide a view into the health of brain cells. (Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering)

Researchers at the University of Michigan are working on a noninvasive method to check whether brain cells are in distress—a tool that could alert people to seek medical attention earlier after receiving a concussion.

Placed on the forehead, the device uses pulses of infrared laser light that can penetrate skin and bone. The light then interacts with a large membrane protein, cytochrome C oxidase, which plays a fundamental role in cell energy production and metabolism. Its readings can help gauge whether brain cells are able to take up and use oxygen molecules.

The researchers say this device could be used to help diagnose concussions on the sidelines of a sports event or on the battlefield, or employed in operating rooms or intensive care to provide treatment feedback while a person is in a medically induced coma.

The infrared laser operates under the same principles as a pulse oximetry detector: Portions of the cytochrome C oxidase protein are excited by the same wavelengths of light as hemoglobin, which is used to gauge blood oxygen levels.

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But because the target molecule is much less common in tissues than hemoglobin and red blood cells, a stronger light source is needed to attain a signal, according to Mohammed Islam, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan.

Islam and his associates conducted a study, presented at the Photonics West conference in San Francisco on Sunday, where participants wore the device while performing tasks to gauge their attention levels. They saw increases in oxygenated blood flow in the brain’s frontal lobe as well as increases in the consumption of oxygen by neurons.

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Concussion diagnoses typically rely on subjective clinical exams that check balance, vision and the like instead of an objective measurement. More broadly, the researchers say many people die because physicians are unable to tell when brain cells begin to fail and that millions more go on to suffer cognitive disabilities.

While the new test can provide a quick measurement of brain tissue metabolism, the researchers still need to evaluate and establish healthy levels and ranges as well as whether there is a definite threshold that could indicate a severe injury requiring medical attention.

The University of Michigan is currently seeking partners to help bring the technology to market, while researchers say it could also be developed to observe the metabolism and function of other organs within the body such as the heart or kidneys.