All eyes on company figuring out how to diagnose concussions
There is no medically-accepted way to conclusively diagnose a concussion, but Neuro Kinetics Inc., an O'Hara company that has developed technology to precisely measure eye movement, thinks it is close to one.
It's not always easy to know whether someone has a concussion, and a method to objectively measure what's known as a mild traumatic brain injury, or MTBI, is an open debate, experts say.
“All the data we've collected so far sure looks like we have that answer,” said J. Howison Schroeder, CEO of Neuro Kinetics, which has been working on eye movement science since 1984.
Among those also looking for answers on concussions are professional and high school sports teams and the military.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there are 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports-related concussions annually in the United States, although the true number is probably much higher, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In October, Neuro Kinetics won a $2.4 million contract from the Department of Defense to continue development of its technology, called I-Portal, and apply it to battlefield testing of combat brain injuries.
Neuro Kinetics has been working under the premise “the eye is the portal to the brain” and has been collecting data from local high school football players, a Pittsburgh-area hospital and from soldiers at various locations.
Research found that more than 200 diseases show up in the form of abnormal eye movement, but the company is focusing on concussions because of its high profile.
“Our technology measures horizontal and vertical movement of the eye, the eye twists in your head, pupil changes, and when the eyes work together or not. We're measuring that mechanically with precision,” Schroeder said.
Neuro Kinetics was founded in 1984 by the late Jan Parmentier, who spun it off from Contraves Goerz Corp., which at the time employed more than 1,000 here but later was broken up into more than 40 smaller companies.
Parmentier died in 1998, and an investment group took over until 2002, when another local group that included Schroeder acquired the company from Parmentier's late wife, Nancy, and others. There now are about 60 shareholders.
Since its founding, the company's main product has been a stimulus system based on a chair that rotates and moves patients, using electrodes and later cameras to collect information from the eye. It has Food and Drug Administration approval to diagnose balance disorders.
Schroeder, Chief Technology Officer Alex Kiderman, and Vince Kytka, director of operations and marketing, redesigned the system with new technology to better capture reflex of the eyes to motion stimulus.
The current version of I-Portal uses goggles with two high-speed cameras that capture information at 100 frames per second, Kiderman said. A more advanced system will sample eye movements at 250 frames per second using fiber optics so that no information will be missed.
The company sold between 200 and 300 of the older systems, and about 130 of the current versions, which sell for between $130,000 and $230,000, depending on the features. It has eight patents and six more pending on its technology.
In one test, a red laser dot projects in front of the patient, moving left to right, up and down, which prompts the eye to look at the dot. A patient with normal response will take 200 to 300 milliseconds to figure out what is going on and move the eye to the dot. “The older you become, the eye gets slower,” Kiderman said. Soldiers in special forces perform 10 to 30 milliseconds faster, either through training, genetics or conditioning.
Neuro Kinetics' testing chair can take half an hour to go through an extensive, overlapping battery of dynamic motion tests to tax the whole network of the brain.
“The concussion stuff kind of fell into our lap. One of our employees flew over the handle bars of his bike, hit his head and cracked his helmet,” Schroeder said. “We've all been guinea pigs here as we've tried to understand what we're doing and how to do it better.
“Because we had a baseline, we tested him again, and the results were dramatically different. You could see the effects of that concussion. And it was a concussion, a mild traumatic brain injury” that didn't show up in other tests, Schroeder said.
After Neuro Kinetics published some of its results, it received outside interest from the Army and others.
“We began to collect data from high school football teams prior to the start of football season in 2010,” Schroeder said. “We ended up with just shy of 300 high schools kids' baselines results.
“And 10 of those kids got concussions that we were able to test. The separation was pristine — basically 100 percent,” he said. “That is what has been the catalyst to get us into the Department of Defense. ... They want to put in place the first FDA-approved concussion device as quickly as they can and build on it.”
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.