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The Difficult Task Of Diagnosing Concussions With A Machine

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
The I-Portal from Neuro Kinetics uses goggles (lower left) and a laptop to measure eye movements and diagnose concussions.

It’s not much bigger than a laptop and a set of ski goggles, but workers at Neuro Kinetics, located in O’Hara Township’s RIDC Park, said they’ve created technology that will help diagnose concussions.

It's called the I-Portal, and it's awaiting FDA approval. 

“This is not quite what Star Trek envisioned, because that is a little bit more smaller, easier, portable, but on the right sort of path,” said Howison Schroeder, president and CEO of Neuro Kinetics.

The company goes back more than 30 years. Its first product used a massive motor-mounted chair and a video camera to watch a patient’s eyes while the chair spun and rocked in a darkened chamber. That technology is still used in about 135 hospitals and clinics worldwide, to help diagnose a slew of balance, dizziness and headache issues. 

But even a pared-down version of the system is expensive. It requires a controlled location and a trained professional to make it work.

When Schroeder joined the company in 2001, he saw that the product did not have a lot of growth potential. But he said its core function of finely measuring a person’s eye movements had a great deal of potential.

Using infrared light, cameras can see the eyes moving up and down, left and right, and even twisting. It can also measure the pupil changing and check to see if both eyes are working together. 

“And given the level and quality of the technology, we (were) throwing away probably 85 percent of that data. So we have invested heavily in that eye tracking, so that we can keep 99 percent of that data,” Schroeder said.

Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Neuro Kinetics' older product.

The eye tracking was coupled with some virtual reality technology and crammed into a pair of goggles hooked to a portable computer. The small, portable system can make measurements in milliseconds.

“This can live in a primary care physician’s office. This can live in a locker room. This can live at a forward base for the military, so this changes the paradigm,” said Schroeder. “As long as this virtual reality stuff, with our very simple geometry, works, well we’ve got the answer and the many tests that we have already done suggests it works great.”

Dr. Michael Hoffer, a professor at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, is doing field testing. The subjects wear the goggles for 12 minutes and watch white dots move through virtual space in very specific ways. As the subject’s eyes track the dots, their eye movements are recorded.

“We’ve tested it on over 200 individuals and it’s very accurate and very reproducible,” said Hoffer, referring to the system, which relies on measuring reflexes. “Reflexes can’t be faked and we have a very discrete way of looking at things. And we can pick up changes, even if they are little changes.”

The accuracy of the Neuro Kinetics product at picking out a concussion is around 96 percent, according to Schroeder.

Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Data of eye movements and a view of the test subject's eyes are seen on the test screen created by Neuro Kinetics.

But that must be proven, because the FDA says there is no set, “concussion indication.” That means there is no mechanical or imaging test that can diagnose a concussion.

Currently, the only way to diagnose a concussion, or any health problem often detected through abnormal eye movements, is for a highly-trained specialist to do a subjective examination.

“They know what they are looking for,” Schroeder said. “What we are able to do now, is we are able to pull that art, turn it into science, which is going to allow us to put that at the front lines of health care.”

The testing is being done three days after a concussion, in an effort to get solid and specific data. But the goal is to eventually offer diagnoses and treatment recommendations as early as one hour after the injury, and at seven and 14 days.

Neuro Kinetics hopes to get the needed FDA approvals by 2017.

In this week’s Tech Report calendar:

The Pittsburgh Tech Council will host BioBlast Thursday night. It’s billed as an opportunity for the life sciences community to connect with each other in a social setting. It’s one of the region's longest standing biotech happy hours.

In other tech news:

II-VI Incorporated released results for its second fiscal quarter, by saying cash flow from operations was up 26 percent. Company CEO Francis Kramer said, despite sluggishness in China and the Saxonburg-based company’s industrial markets, he is very encouraged about the prospects ahead for II-VI

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh said they have a way to move compressed natural gas at a lower cost, without sacrificing safety. Researchers are utilizing metal-organic frameworks to develop a new type of storage system that would adsorb the gas like a sponge and allow for more energy-efficient storage and use.