The new device, called DETECT, can determine whether a player has suffered a concussion that requires immediate medical attention in minutes on the sidelines of a game. Traditional brain injury exams can take an hour in a specialist's office or hospital.
Designed by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, the device is being tested in Atlanta emergency rooms. Its creators also hope to start testing it at Georgia Tech football games next season.
"If a football player takes a hit, it's not known if he has an injury or not," said Michelle LaPlaca, one of the creators and an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech. "We're trying to catch those players that should not be back in the game."
The device - short for Display Enhanced Testing for Concussions and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury System - shows an injured player a series of words and shapes to test his cognitive ability and memory.
The device blocks external stimuli that could interfere with testing, such as light and sound. This allows the test to be given in virtually any setting, even a bright football field with a roaring crowd. It can determine in up to 7 minutes whether a person needs to be taken to a doctor.
"We needed something very fast or coaches wouldn't use it because they don't want to take a player out of the game very long," said Dr. David Wright, another creator and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Emory.
Many players end up back in the game after suffering a head injury. Dr. Don Penney, a neurosurgeon in Lawrenceville, Ga., said studies have found that about 70 percent of players who have suffered a head injury have immediately returned to the field.
Nearly 1 in 5 high school players have had at least one minor head injury and about 300,000 people suffer sports-related head injuries yearly.
"There's room for a lot of improvement in how we manage concussions on the sideline. If it's simple to utilize, then it would make it available to trainers and coaches," said Penney, who wasn't involved in the development of the device. "If this unit ... keeps it simple, I think there's a great role for it in the management of sports head injuries."
Returning to a game too soon with a head injury means increasing the chance a player will become seriously injured if hit again. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns of "second impact syndrome," a repeat concussion not long after receiving the first head injury. The new injury can cause rapid brain swelling that can lead to a coma or death.
The device would cost between $500 and $1,000.
By Daniel Yee