Tackling concussions, head-on

As a rugby player, Harrison Brown knows what it’s like to get a concussion, but he didn’t always receive the right medical treatment. During a high school rugby game, he was hit so hard, he stumbled off the field and vomited. It was a teammate — not a coach — who advised him to sit out for the rest of the game.

“What’s happening on the sidelines is either nothing, or they’re using a piece of paper to perform a subjective test,” says Brown, who now researches concussions at the University of British Columbia (UBC) where he is a PhD candidate in sensorimotor physiology.

Harrison Brown, creator of the Headcheck app for concussions.
Harrison Brown

Government of Canada statistics show that football, soccer and hockey head injuries among youth have increased by more than 40 per cent. Brown wanted to bridge the gap between concussion testing in the lab and on the sidelines.

In 2016, Brown co-founded HeadCheck Health and developed a mobile app that trainers and coaches can use during a game to assess potential concussions. The HeadCheck app consists of a series of eight test modules that cover cognition, balance and memory. The tests are conducted before a head injury to establish a player’s baseline and after a brain-rattling impact. “It’s a quick, accurate way to perform both sideline and post-injury tests for concussions,” says Brown. The test takes about 10 minutes to complete.

“What’s happening on the sidelines is either nothing, or they’re using a piece of paper to perform a subjective test.”

The app is based on the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT3), which uses a series of tests to evaluate a player’s symp- toms following a blow to the head. Testing balance, cognition or memory alone won’t provide enough information to assess whether someone has a concussion. “The best way to do it is to test multiple functions of the brain,” says Brown, B.Sc. ’10. “You get a very broad picture of somebody’s brain health.”

To test balance using the app, the player is asked to stand in three different positions: stand with eyes closed and hands on the hips; position one foot in front of the other heel to toe; and stand on the non-dominant leg with the other leg raised. Brown and his team are developing a headband with sensors that will help measure a player’s balance more accurately.

The app delivers real-time results but doesn’t recommend whether a player should be pulled from the game; that decision is left up to the user. Every concus- sion and player is different, Brown explains, and what causes a concussion in one player may not affect another in the same way. The extent of the injury depends on the player and other variables, including the direction and force of impact, neck positioning and the amount of fluid in the brain.

Sixty teams representing 1,800 athletes at various levels are using the app, as well as all of UBC’s varsity teams. “They said it was an important investment in the health of their athletes,” Brown says of UBC’s endorsement. “We did this to improve the health of athletes and protect them.”

Concussion awareness has grown since Brown was in high school. “I wasn’t educated on concussions. I didn’t know that I needed to be tested. I didn’t know that there should have been someone there to make sure I was OK and make the decision as to whether I could play or not.” Now that he knows about the dangers of playing with a concus- sion, he says, “It’s a little bit scary to know that I experienced that.”– SUSAN BUBAK