In 2011, Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was hit so hard by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison in a helmet-to-helmet impact that he was laid out flat on the field. A couple plays later, he was back on the field.
After the game, McCoy received the diagnosis everyone who saw the hit had already pronounced: He had a concussion.
That incident led the NFL to institute a program using “spotters” in the press box to watch players for signs of concussion and other injuries.
At every level of football, from high school to college to the NFL, many concussions go undiagnosed.
At the high school level, “most players don’t report symptoms,” Stanford University pediatric-sports doctor Christine Boyd told the Mercury News in August.
For high school football teams without trainers or medics on the sidelines, the majority of concussions go undetected, Boyd said.
More than 3,000 Bay Area kids ages 9 to 18 were diagnosed with sports-related concussions in 2015, the Mercury News reported. California-wide, kids in that age range suffered more than 17,000 sports-related concussions in 2015. The number of those injuries caused by football was not specified in the state government data used by the Mercury News.
As awareness about concussions in football has grown, participation on California high school teams has dropped, with 100,538 players in 2015 compared to 108,065 in 2006, according to the newspaper.
“The reason I think the youth football numbers have dropped is due to the issue of concussions,” California Interscholastic Federation executive director Roger Blake told the Mercury News. “Parents, rightfully so, are asking questions and have concerns.”
In college football, players reported suffering six suspected concussions for every one that was actually diagnosed, CBS Sports reported in 2014.
But concussions could be diagnosed on the spot, right after an impact, by a variant of Google Glass “smart” spectacles, according to a new patent application from Google.
The infamous Google Glass flopped spectacularly in the consumer market, largely because it allowed surreptitious recording of videos.
Now, Google has envisioned a set of eyeglasses that could be worn under a football helmet to diagnose concussions and other brain injuries, along with trauma to other body parts.
“The system may connect to or be affixed within a head-mounted helmet structure,” the patent application said.
Acceleration of a person’s head during an impact can be used to predict the risk of head injury, according to Virginia Tech researchers.
Google’s glasses could measure acceleration of the head during an on-field collision — for example the speed at which Colt McCoy’s noggin went backward when it was hit by the 242-pound Harrison. Once the head passes a certain acceleration threshold, injuries to the brain can be presumed, the application suggested.
“The wearable computing device may identify an indication of a closed-head injury, such as a concussion,” said the application, filed in September and made public Jan. 5. “Since the user may wear the wearable computing device on the user’s head, the wearable computing device may experience about the same acceleration experienced by the user’s head.
“The threshold value may be a value of an acceleration above which the user of the wearable computing device may sustain a concussion.”
If such an injury is identified, the glasses could administer concussion-testing, which might include evaluating eye, verbal and motor-skills responses, according to the application.
“The wearable computing device may provide the verbal cue to the user via the speaker,” the application said. “The verbal cue may include a pre-recorded or synthesized message requesting the user to open the user’s eye, such as: ‘You may have suffered a closed-head injury. Please open your eyes and look to the left.’ ”
The threshold could be set according to the user’s status as an adult, adolescent or child, the application said.
Google’s device could also diagnose other injuries, by processing photos taken by an on-board camera, the patent said.
“The wearable computing device may employ an object recognition technique to identify an indication of an injury … (it) may be configured to identify an indication of a broken bone, such as an indication of a contusion on the user’s skin or an indication of swelling of tissue.”
The glasses could even call 911 if the injury is bad enough, the application indicated.
It’s not clear from the patent application how the technology would work in the event of a sudden deceleration to a full stop, as when a player’s head is slammed onto the AstroTurf.
While the future of football at every level may hinge to a large part on how the concussion problem is dealt with, there’s no guarantee Google will be involved in the solution, as a patent application does not necessarily mean an actual product will be developed.
However, the patent application also envisioned the technology applied to car crashes, another significant cause of concussions and other head injuries.
Image: Google’s drawing of Google Glass-like spectacles for diagnosing concussions (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)