If you sustain a head injury today, even a mild one, you only have one choice: a trip to the hospital to determine the severity of your injury. But now, the development of a new mobile brain scan device could change all that. The device, under development, scans brain waves and will be able to, its developers say, prevent death in many cases.
British actress Natasha Richardson lived in the limelight. She was the daughter of famed actress Vanessa Redgrave and wife of Irish-born actor Liam Neeson. But at 45, she died of a brain injury, after falling down on a beginner's ski slope and walking away feeling fine.
"She suffered from what some people call a walk, talk and die syndrome," explained Michael Singer,the chief executive of BrainScope, part of a holding company owned by AOL (America Online) founder Steve Case.
Singer says a mobile brain scan device, like the one his company is developing, could have saved the actress's life.
"Our device had it been employed - we believe - would have detected that it would have been a relatively severe traumatic brain injury, and therefore, would have clarified for her and everyone on the scene that she had a very severe problem," he added.
Singer says that BrainScope's device, which is still being developed, will be portable, battery-operated, inexpensive and user friendly whether by coaches on the sidelines or army medics in the field. Today, brainwave detecting EEG machines are found mainly in hospitals. They are costly and require advanced technicians to use.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.4 million people suffer from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) each year. But that number could be much higher because many mild brain injuries go undetected and undiagnosed.
"We don't know how many people encounter mild traumatic brain injury. There are many people who get bumped on the head and are woozy for a minute but they never get an evaluation," said Dr. Dan Cohen, a former U.S. Defense Department physician now working as a healthcare consultant.
He says prompt diagnosis for even mild brain injuries is crucial since, if repeated over time, they can lead to life-altering cognitive defects. Singer's group says twenty percent of soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning with varying degrees of TBI's. Since they often tend to underplay their injuries, eager to get back to work, knowing their level of brain injury quickly could mean a trip to the hospital instead.
"Right now there's no gear," said Dr. Cohen. "The medics are doing battlefield assessments you know can you count my fingers can you recite a few things by memory you know they are doing very primitive limited tests, tests of limited applicability."
Cohen says it's too early to endorse BrainScope's device, but the research looks promising. He compares it to mobile external defibrillators now in widespread use today.
"Whoever would have thought that you would have a device on the wall that you could grab off the wall when someone drops down and seems to have had a heart attack, you wrap it around the chest," he added. "The machine [portable defibrillator] tells you what to do and you stand back and the machine delivers electricity and saves somebody's life. Whoever thought we would have had that?"
BrainScope is gathering head injury data from patients around the country. Their mobile device could be submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for review and clearance within a year.