A neck patch for athletes could help detect concussions early

The device is an upgrade from bulky helmet sensors prone to false readings, scientists say

a football player tackles a quarterback during the 2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl

Football tackles — like this one during the 2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas — can cause whiplash and concussion. Scientists have designed a neck patch that could help detect these injuries faster than current methods.

Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

A flexible sensor applied to the back of the neck could help researchers detect whiplash-induced concussions in athletes.

The sensor, described June 23 in Scientific Reports, is about the size of a bandage and is sleeker and more accurate than some instruments currently in use, says electrical engineer Nelson Sepúlveda of Michigan State University in East Lansing. “My hope is that it will lead to earlier diagnosis of concussions.”

Bulky accelerometers in helmets are sometimes used to monitor for concussion in football players. But since the devices are not attached directly to athletes’ bodies, the sensors are prone to false readings from sliding helmets.

Sepúlveda and colleagues’ patch adheres to the nape. It is made of two electrodes on an almost paper-thin piece of piezoelectric film, which generates an electric charge when stretched or compressed. When the head and neck move, the patch transmits electrical pulses to a computer. Researchers can analyze those signals to assess sudden movements that can cause concussion.

The team tried out the patch on the neck of a human test dummy, dropping the figure from a height of about 60 centimeters. Researchers also packed the dummy’s head with different sensors to provide a baseline level of neck strain. Data from the patch aligned with data gathered by the internal sensors more than 90 percent of the time, Sepúlveda and colleagues found.

The researchers are now working on incorporating a wireless transmitter into the patch for an even more streamlined design.

Nikk Ogasa is a staff writer who focuses on the physical sciences for Science News. He has a master's degree in geology from McGill University, and a master's degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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