A New look at Concussions: Alum develops product to measure brain blood flow
On an auspicious day inside a lab at the University of California Los Angeles, College of Idaho alumnus Robert Hamilton ’08 was working on a project to measure brain blood flow activity. That’s when he loaded something incorrectly into the algorithm of his software program.
As fate would have it, that mistake was the catalyst that led Hamilton to co-found Neural Analytics in 2013, a company that has developed a product to simplify the diagnosis of concussions and other brain injuries.
“Science and medicine is just figuring out that concussions are causing blood flow changes to the brain,” said Hamilton, the vice president of research and development for Neural Analytics. “These changes can lead to catastrophic consequences if misdiagnosed.”
Every year, four million traumatic brain injuries occur, resulting in two million emergency department visits; 300,000 hospitalizations; 53,000 deaths; and $77 billion in healthcare costs. But Neural Analytics has developed a test to measure blood flow changes to the brain in as little as ten minutes.
The company is in the midst of testing the product by conducting research on athletes who play sports with high risks of concussions. Participants are monitored during their athletic seasons by Transcranial Doppler measurements and proprietary algorithms developed by Hamilton’s team.
The athletes strap on a headset that looks like the inside padding of a football helmet. The headset uses ultrasound to scan the main blood vessels, which are then analyzed by the software. The brain is very good at regulating blood flow, Hamilton said. And if the brain can’t regulate blood flow, athletes shouldn’t be playing.
Concussion diagnosis is currently made by physicians or trainers asking an athlete a series of questions. When compared to their baseline measurement, if there is a deficit, then the athlete has a concussion. But this system can be subjective, Hamilton said. And even if symptoms have resolved, there can still be a reduction or deficit in cerebral blood flow. In order to prevent athletes from returning to play too soon, Neural Analytics hopes to have a headset on every sideline.
The technology has piqued the interest of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. military and athletics teams from pee wee football to the National Football League. Hamilton has also received government grants being issued to Neural Analytics from NASA, the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation to further develop his technology.
Alternative uses include measuring blood flow changes in astronauts while in microgravity, stroke, dementia, and patients suffering from cerebral malaria
Cerebral malaria affects more than half a million people annually, most of them children in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The disease leads to changes in cerebral blood flow and the pressure within the skull. Unfortunately, hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa do not have the ability to measure the pressure—which often requires drilling a hole in the patient’s skull—and the condition can be fatal if left untreated. Hamilton’s portable headset could help in rural areas. And the best part? No drill is required.
Much like the fortunate error that caused the algorithm to work, another mishap led Hamilton into his current career path.
While attending the C of I, Hamilton envisioned becoming a civil engineer. But an incident playing baseball changed that. After switching from third base to catcher, Hamilton’s biomechanics changed and he threw the baseball differently. The motion caused a bone spur, and eventually, surgery.
Thus began Hamilton’s interest in biomechanical engineering, leading him to obtain a doctorate from UCLA in 2013. And while Hamilton has attended a variety of college campuses, he said his time at C of I was the most personalized.
“The attention to problem solving and teaching by the faculty is unmatched at larger universities,” he said.
Whether it was taking mathematics and physics classes from professors Robin Cruz and Jim Dull, to talking about life and education with head baseball coach Shawn Humberger and history professor Howard Berger, all made an impact on Hamilton and his career, he said.
Today, Neural Analytics, which has grown to 11 people since 2013, is in the process of getting its product FDA approved. After that, it will continue its goal of simplifying brain injury diagnosis, reducing healthcare costs, and improving patient outcomes.