New device can diagnose concussions using AI
For a long time after Mary Smith hit her head, she was not able to function. Test after test came back normal, so her doctors ruled out the concussion, but she knew something was wrong. Finally, when she took a test with a novel EyeBOX device, recently approved by the FDA, she learned she indeed had been dealing with the aftermath of a concussion.
“I felt like even my husband and doctors thought I was faking it or crazy,” recalls Smith, who preferred not to disclose her real name. “When I took the EyeBOX test it showed that my eyes were not moving together and my BOX score was abnormal.” To her diagnosticians, scientists at the Minneapolis-based company Oculogica who developed the EyeBOX, these markers were concussion signs. “I cried knowing that finally someone could figure out what was wrong with me and help me get better,” she says.
Concussion affects around 42 million people worldwide. While it’s increasingly common in the news because of sports injuries, anything that causes damage to the head, from a fall to a car accident, can result in a concussion. The sudden blow or jolt can disrupt the normal way the brain works. In the immediate aftermath, people may suffer from headaches, lose consciousness and experience dizziness, confusion and vomiting. Some recover but others have side effects that can last for years, particularly affecting memory and concentration.
There is no simple standard-of-care test to confirm a concussion or rule it out. Neither do they appear on MRI and CT scans. Instead, medical professionals use more indirect approaches that test symptoms of concussions, such as assessments of patients’ learning and memory skills, ability to concentrate and problem solving. They also look at balance and coordination. Most tests are in the form of questionnaires or symptom checklists. Consequently, they have limitations, can be biased and may miss a concussion or produce a false positive. Some people suspected of having a concussion may ordinarily have difficulties with literary and problem-solving tests because of language challenges or education levels.
Another problem with current tests is that patients, particularly soldiers who want to return to combat and athletes who would like to keep competing, could try and hide their symptoms to avoid being diagnosed with a brain injury. Trauma physicians who work with concussion patients have the need for a tool that is more objective and consistent.
“This type of assessment doesn’t rely on the patient's education level, willingness to follow instructions or cooperation. You can’t game this.” -- Uzma Samadani, founder of Oculogica
“The importance of having an objective measurement tool for the diagnosis of concussion is of great importance,” says Douglas Powell, associate professor of biomechanics at the University of Memphis, with research interests in sports injury and concussion. “While there are a number of promising systems or metrics, we have yet to develop a system that is portable, accessible and objective for use on the sideline and in the clinic. The EyeBOX may be able to address these issues, though time will be the ultimate test of performance.”
The EyeBOX as a window inside the brain
Using eye movements to diagnose a concussion has emerged as a promising technique since around 2010. Oculogica combined eye movements with AI to develop the EyeBOX to develop an unbiased objective diagnostic tool.
“What’s so great about this type of assessment is it doesn’t rely on the patient's education level, willingness to follow instructions or cooperation,” says Uzma Samadani, a neurosurgeon and brain injury researcher at the University of Minnesota, who founded Oculogica. “You can’t game this. It assesses functions that are prompted by your brain.”
In 2010, Samadani was working on a clinical trial to improve the outcome of brain injuries. The team needed some way to measure if seriously brain injured patients were improving. One thing patients could do was watch TV. So Samadani designed and patented an AI-based algorithm that tracks the relationship between eye movement and concussion.
The EyeBOX test requires patients to watch movie or music clips for 220 seconds. An eye tracking camera records subconscious eye movements, tracking eye positions 500 times per seconds as patients watch the video. It collects over 100,000 data points. The device then uses AI to assess whether there’s any disruptions from the normal way the eyes move.
Cranial nerves are responsible for transmitting information between the brain and the body. Many are involved in eye movement. Pressure caused by a concussion can affect how these nerves work. So tracking how the eyes move can indicate if there’s anything wrong with the cranial nerves and where the problem lies.
If someone is healthy, their eyes should be able to focus on an object, follow movement and both eyes should be coordinated with each other. The EyeBox can detect abnormalities. For example, if a patient’s eyes are coordinated but they are not moving as they should, that indicates issues in the central brain stem, whilst only one eye moving abnormally suggests that a particular nerve section is affected.
Uzma Samadani with the EyeBOX device
“The EyeBOX is a monitor for cranial nerves,” says Samadani. “Essentially it’s a form of digital neurological exam. “Several other eye-tracking techniques already exist, but they rely on subjective self-reported symptoms. Many also require a baseline, a measure of how patients reacted when they were healthy, which often isn’t available.
VOMS (Vestibular Ocular Motor Screen) is one of the most accurate diagnostic tests used in clinics in combination with other tests, but it is subjective. It involves a therapist getting patients to move their head or eyes as they focus or follow a particular object. Patients then report their symptoms.
The King-Devick test measures how fast patients can read numbers and compares it to a baseline. Since it is mainly used for athletes, the initial test is completed before the season starts. But participants can manipulate it. It also cannot be used in emergency rooms because the majority of patients wouldn’t have prior baseline tests.
Unlike these tests, EyeBOX doesn’t use a baseline and is objective because it doesn’t rely on patients’ answers. “It shows great promise,” says Thomas Wilcockson, a senior lecturer of psychology in Loughborough University, who is an expert in using eye tracking techniques in neurological disorders. “Baseline testing of eye movements is not always possible. Alternative measures of concussion currently in development, including work with VR headsets, seem to currently require it. Therefore the EyeBOX may have an advantage.”
A technology that’s still evolving
In their last clinical trial, Oculogica used the EyeBOX to test 46 patients who had concussion and 236 patients who did not. The sensitivity of the EyeBOX, or the probability of it correctly identifying the patient’s concussion, was 80.4 percent. Meanwhile, the test accurately ruled out a concussion in 66.1 percent of cases. This is known as its specificity score.
While the team is working on improving the numbers, experts who treat concussion patients find the device promising. “I strongly support their use of eye tracking for diagnostic decision making,” says Douglas Powell. “But for diagnostic tests, we would prefer at least one of the sensitivity or specificity values to be greater than 90 percent. Powell compares EyeBOX with the Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test, which has sensitivity and specificity values of 73 and 78 percent, respectively. The VOMS also has shown greater accuracy than the EyeBOX, at least for now. Still, EyeBOX is competitive with the best diagnostic testing available for concussion and Powell hopes that its detection prowess will improve. “I anticipate that the algorithms being used by Oculogica will be under continuous revision and expect the results will improve within the next several years.”
“The color of your skin can have a huge impact in how quickly you are triaged and managed for brain injury. People of color have significantly worse outcomes after traumatic brain injury than people who are white.” -- Uzma Samadani, founder of Oculogica
Powell thinks the EyeBOX could be an important complement to other concussion assessments.
“The Oculogica product is a viable diagnostic tool that supports clinical decision making. However, concussion is an injury that can present with a wide array of symptoms, and the use of technology such as the Oculogica should always be a supplement to patient interaction.”
Ioannis Mavroudis, a consultant neurologist at Leeds Teaching Hospital, agrees that the EyeBOX has promise, but cautions that concussions are too complex to rely on the device alone. For example, not all concussions affect how eyes move. “I believe that it can definitely help, however not all concussions show changes in eye movements. I believe that if this could be combined with a cognitive assessment the results would be impressive.”
The Oculogica team submitted their clinical data for FDA approval and received it in 2018. Now, they’re working to bring the test to the commercial market and using the device clinically to help diagnose concussions for clients. They also want to look at other areas of brain health in the next few years. Samadani believes that the EyeBOX could possibly be used to detect diseases like multiple sclerosis or other neurological conditions. “It’s a completely new way of figuring out what someone’s neurological exam is and we’re only beginning to realize the potential,” says Samadani.
One of Samadani’s biggest aspirations is to help reduce inequalities in healthcare because of skin color and other factors like money or language barriers. From that perspective, the EyeBOX’s greatest potential could be in emergency rooms. It can help diagnose concussions in addition to the questionnaires, assessments and symptom checklists, currently used in the emergency departments. Unlike these more subjective tests, EyeBOX can produce an objective analysis of brain injury through AI when patients are admitted and assessed, unrelated to their socioeconomic status, education, or language abilities. Studies suggest that there are racial disparities in how patients with brain injuries are treated, such as how quickly they're assessed and get a treatment plan.
“The color of your skin can have a huge impact in how quickly you are triaged and managed for brain injury,” says Samadani. “As a result of that, people of color have significantly worse outcomes after traumatic brain injury than people who are white. The EyeBOX has the potential to reduce inequalities,” she explains.
“If you had a digital neurological tool that you could screen and triage patients on admission to the emergency department you would potentially be able to make sure that everybody got the same standard of care,” says Samadani. “My goal is to change the way brain injury is diagnosed and defined.”
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio improves about 10 minutes into the episode. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/