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Faculty studies concussions

Lesley Stevenson | Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Baraka Bouts and Bengal Bouts may be two of the most anticipated annual athletic events at Notre Dame, but for computer science faculty members Dr. Christian Poellabauer and Dr. Patrick Flynn, the fights offered a chance to put two years’ worth of concussion diagnostics research to the test.

“Impacted brain function can cause slurred speech,” Poellabauer said. “Specifically, we isolate vowels in the words spoken by the athlete into a microphone and look at the different frequencies that are presented in [his] speech and see how they deviate from the norm.”

The program analyzes a boxer’s voice recording after his or her match and compares it to a baseline vocal sample recorded during a pre-fight physical examination, Poellabauer said. The algorithm then “spits out” a score representing the possibility of a concussion.

“If the score is above a certain threshold, then we would refer the athlete to a doctor for examination,” Poellabauer said.

For Bengal and Baraka Bouts, boxers could opt into the test, which required them to speak certain words into an iPad microphone, Poellabauer said.

 “We looked just a little deeper into the actual composition of the voice to see if there’s any kind of … change in the frequencies or the amplitudes,” she said. “We were focusing on the vowels because they’re the easiest to examine, to find changes. And luckily we were able to find such changes.”

Poellabauer and Flynn said these indicators of a potential concussion include distorted vowels, hypernasality and imprecise consonants, but they agreed the biggest challenge for the team is collecting enough data to support effective analysis.

“It turns out that a boxing tournament is almost ideal in terms of data collection,” Flynn said. “We don’t want anyone to get concussed, but they’re guaranteed to happen in a large-scale boxing tournament.”

The program does not guarantee an accurate final diagnosis of potential concussions, nor is it meant to do so, Flynn said.

“The idea is to make this a rapid screening tool that basically anyone can perform, and it’s intended to characterize the risk,” Flynn said. “It’s not diagnosing per se, but it is providing this score that if it has any kind of elevated level, you would probably suggest to a coach that a follow-up medical visit is necessary.”

The application has the potential to be applied toward other types of brain damage, including diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, Flynn said. There are also plans to team with the Cleveland Clinic to expand the test’s use to other sports and potentially prepare it for the commercial market.

“The goal of the app is to be fairly conservative,” Flynn said. “Any commercial or widely-used version of the app would need to guard against false negatives.”

The project began nearly two years ago in the fall of 2011 when Poellabauer and his team, which includes additional faculty and students, contacted University physician James Moriarty about applying their diagnostic test to athletes in danger of concussions.

“We actually had some students doing a class project on using tablets for detecting brain injuries,” Poellabauer said. “After that project was over, we had the idea of trying to reach out to Dr. Moriarty … to see if we could use such a test on campus, and he offered for us to test for the boxing competitions.”

With the support of Notre Dame and the Cleveland Clinic, Poellabauer and Flynn said they hope the app will be more widely tested.

“It’s very preliminary, but there’s definitely interest in our work,” Flynn said.