Penn State Using Virtual Reality in Concussion Testing

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The Penn State departments of Kinesiology, Information Technology, and Sports Medicine are implementing virtual reality testing to help diagnose and prevent concussions in athletes, according to a Penn State Live report.

Research in the virtual reality lab is led by Sam Slobounov, the Director of Sports Concussion Research Services. Assisting Slobounov in his research is Elena Slobounov, the lead applications programmer in Information Technology Services Research Computing and Cyberinfrastructure, and Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, Director of Sports Medicine at Penn State.

Mr. Slobounov began research into virtual reality concussion testing to find a more concrete way to diagnose concussions because of “multiple problems with existing…clinical type of tools that assess concussions.”

“In virtual reality, you could potentially put someone in a virtual environment and simulate the type of collision in a safe environment,” said Mr. Slobounov. “The transferability to real life, that’s the beauty of virtual reality.”

The virtual reality tests are conducted in a National Institute of Health Funded Virtual Reality lab in Rec Hall. In the lab, Slobounov is able to recreate virtual environments similar to what they would experience in competition. The athlete puts on a headset and stands in front of a 12-foot by 10-foot screen. From there they navigate through the virtual environment using a joystick. According to Slobounov, you can see if that particular memory, for example, is intact or if balance is sufficient in the lab before sending the athlete back into action.

However, for any of this information to make sense, athletes are required to take baseline tests prior to the start of the season. These baseline tests are then compared to the post-concussion tests.

Slobounov noted that virtual reality concussion testing is still not completely ready to be implemented everywhere.

“At this state, we’re in the research stage. It’s not really clinically accepted,” said Slobounov. “It’s not validated for a big population. It has to be accepted by the clinical community before they will implement this in their clinical practice. Sooner or later, it will be implemented in the clinical practice.”

This research comes at a time when concussion treatment and prevention is a huge topic in sports, specifically football. The game’s violent nature, and in extension its future, have recently come into question. Even President Barack Obama has speculated on the safety of the game and questioned if he had a son, whether or not he would be allowed to play.

The Big Ten is even trying to coordinate its research efforts, said Slobounov.

“There is a Big Ten initiative right now that would like to combine the efforts of Big Ten researchers and put some kind of mutual funding together and get a common consent among Big Ten campuses and how to mange it in a systematic way,” he said.

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