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App to assist medical research

| Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Saint Mary’s communicative sciences and disorders department and Notre Dame’s engineering and computer science departments have teamed up with Contect, Inc. to create an app to help detect concussions on the sidelines of sports games.

Contect Inc. came into existence through the ESTEEM program (Engineering, Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Masters Program), president of Contect Inc. Shane McQuillan said.

“Contect came into existence through my ESTEEM thesis, which was a required component of the program,” McQuillan said. “That being said, a lot of companies that were established did not continue after the program, so Contect is fairly unique in that sense. We won the McCloskey business competition last year, which provided the ground work to keep things going.”

The app is in its early stages but hopes to go to market in early 2015, McQuillan said. The app will first be used in high schools and will then expand to other markets fairly quickly.

“At a very high level, here’s how it works: we take a baseline speech recording from an athlete at the start of a season,” McQuillan said. “During this they read a serious of words and sentences that are presented to them by our application, we then analyze these recordings and extract a number of acoustic metrics.

“After a suspected concussion the athlete repeats the same test, and again we extract the acoustic features. We can compare the sets of features to establish if there is a likelihood of concussion.”

The team of creators for Contect Inc. is composed of software developers and entrepreneurs who are capable of building a robust application, McQuillan said.

Saint Mary’s communicative sciences and disorders professor Sandra Schneider designs tests and trials and examines recordings to see what changes she can detect in athlete’s voices.

“We are at a point in time in society, in our world, where we can’t do research just in our own field alone and understand it,” Schneider said. “I think we really have to cross boundaries. … Between computer science and engineering, those people have different skillset than we have, and it’s kind of nice to be working in conjunction of all of us together because I think we all learn something from each other as we go through this.”

The earlier a concussion is detected, the sooner it can be treated, McQuillan said.

“Contect is trying to fill a gap where there is no good solution — sideline concussion detection,” McQuillan said. “If you want to detect them straight away, you’re going to need to do it on the sidelines, and Contect wants to offer a product that can do so.”

The brain is such a finely-tuned instrument that it does not like any kind of change, Schneider said. Over 1,000 athletes have been baseline tested as part of the Spring season trial. Schneider predicts close to 40 will receive a concussion at some point during the season.

“With sports injury related concussions, it’s a fact that usually one concussion isn’t the problem, its multiple concussions,” Schneider said. “Every time they get hit, in practice on the field, the more hits that you have the more in danger you are. This brain can only take so much. And then it begins to show cumulative effects.”

Speech is a sensitive tool that is a good indicator for anything that happens to the brain, Schneider said.

“It’s an emotional indicator and it’s a neurological indicator,” Schneider said. “That’s why they thought that speech would be a good indicator on the sidelines. You can have a baseline of somebody and then you have them read these words and we have the words and what they need to do and if there is any change it would be an indicator.”

Schneider said the app is groundbreaking because currently, there is no literature that says there can be changes in speech due to a mild concussion.

“The app right away was developed to look at speech and see if there were any changes in speech due to a mild concussion, which, believe it or not, there is nothing in literature about that at all so this is like breaking ground,” Schneider said. “We know there’s changes in speech and people with moderate and severe traumatic brain injury but do we know that speech is a detector for mild concussions.”

Schneider said coaches have been accommodating at the high school level so far but believes that this app will become a political issue as well.

“You also have to realize that it’s a very political issue because you start into Division One, which is like the Notre Dame football team, and as you know there’s a lot riding on the line when you pull one of your star quarterbacks out because of concussion,” Schneider said. “And some of them I don’t think want to know that information. So it’s a political decision in a lot of ways. And they know they’re going to run into that.”

The app is meant to be used in conjunction with other concussion screeners, Schneider said. The app alone cannot be used to make a decision.

“Right now we seem to be primarily in the high schools but later it will be in the college level and then when we have something that is really strong and seems to be pretty accurate at detecting something, then I think they’ll push it to the next level,” Schneider said. “So we’re talking a few years.”

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About Alex Winegar

A junior at Saint Mary's, Alex is a Communicative Sciences and Disorders major. She serves as the Saint Mary's co-associate news editor. Alex enjoys traveling, food and spending time in "The Mitten."

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