UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A Penn State Schreyer Scholar is among three college students who are looking to bring a smarter, more efficient type of concussion testing to high school sports teams.
Matthew Roda, a sophomore from Lancaster majoring in health policy and administration who is on the pre-med track, is a co-founder of Reflexion Interactive Technologies, a startup that has developed a portable screening device called the Edge. The device measures reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and other responses that can help determine whether or not an athlete has suffered a concussion — within seconds after the potential injury occurred.
The newest prototype of the Edge is a 6-foot-by-2-foot board, made of composite materials, with a six-panel display and several hundred sensors that light up in set patterns. The versatility of the design allows for a variety of types of tests, including participants quickly touching those lights, one at time, with their fingertips during a 30-second test. The data is instantly stored and analyzed via computer.
Roda understands from his own experience the devastating effects of concussions. He was playing in an ice hockey game during his junior year of high school when a check from an opponent sent him headfirst into the boards.
His coach, following the concussion protocol in place, asked Roda where he was, what year it was, and who the president was, and he answered all three questions correctly and was consequently allowed to keep playing in the game.
“The reality was I had a concussion that was so severe I missed a month of school after that, and then didn’t return full time until another month later,” Roda said. “How was the referee, the coach, or anyone else supposed to know if I was OK?”
That is the question Roda and his co-founders — high school friends Matt Campagna, a sophomore at Case Western Reserve University, and Patrick Walsh, a sophomore at Cornell — are hoping to answer with their software and device, which they featured at the CES consumer technology trade show in Las Vegas in early January.
Unlike IMPACT testing, which involves athletes taking a test that lasts roughly a half hour and is measured against a single baseline test taken before the season starts, screening with the Reflexion Edge can be — and is encouraged to be — done on the sideline, Roda said, and an entire team can be tested every week. That gives coaches and trainers a larger data set and a way to see positive or negative trends and, in some cases, identify problems they weren’t even aware of.
“If there’s a huge hit, it’s obvious,” Roda said. “It’s these smaller, mild concussions that are going undetected.”
Under the current screening system, if an athlete is feeling sick on the day of his baseline test, it could produce a result that will make it difficult to determine if he has a concussion later on. There’s also the possibility that, knowing how the system works, he could decide to perform poorly on purpose during the baseline test so that there would be no discernible difference if he suffered a concussion, which is known as “sandbagging.”
Reflexion’s system would measure the athlete’s response rate over time, making sandbagging more difficult if not impossible and allowing for an initial sluggish test. There are other potential benefits for athletes that can come from the testing process itself.
“It’s been proven that by doing complex reaction time training, you’ll be able to react quicker on the field and avoid concussions,” Roda said. “It’s training the players to actually make them better at the sport they’re playing.”
The Reflexion team is working with Penn State kinesiology professor Semyon Slobounov, one of the nation’s leading concussion researchers. He and a team of graduate students will set out to prove the scientific validity of the concept. The first step is developing proof of concept. The next would be preclinical trials.
“Our mission is the science part of it, providing everything they need to show it works and why it works,” said Slobounov, who plans to include athletes from Penn State’s varsity and club teams in testing. “We would like to see the underlying neuroscience basis behind it.”
Slobounov is curious to see how Reflexion’s screening will account for left- or right-handedness and for testers’ ability to learn with repeated screenings.
The Edge device, which fits in a duffel bag when folded, could benefit athletes of all ages, but the Reflexion team is looking to specifically target high school programs. It is also considering a subscription model in which schools could purchase the board once and pay for updated software on a regular basis.
So far, the team has raised more than $150,000 from Angel investors. Roda, Reflexion’s CMO, estimates he spends 20 to 30 hours per week on the project. His hope is that young athletes all over the country will benefit.
“I put a ton of time into this,” he said, “but it’s something I’m really passionate about.”