Multitasking as a Diagnostic Tool?

Here at Word on Health we’re used to doing a million things at once. So over the years, we’ve  heard most of the multitasking jokes. Admittedly we’ve chuckled at the male definition known as chewing gum and breaking wind at the same time.  We’ve even been known to smile when men ask, “if women are so good at multitasking why can’t they have sex and a headache at the same time?”

However, it turns out that it’s no laughing matter.

Scientists hope to use a simple multitasking challenge – walking and thinking at the same time –  to quickly screen individuals who may have suffered brain injuries. According to researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) asking an individual to walk a short distance while saying the months of the year in reverse order, can determine if that person is impaired and possibly suffering from a concussion.

This simple test involving radar, which could be performed on the sideline of a sporting event or on a battlefield, has the potential to help coaches and commanders decide if athletes and soldiers are ready to engage in activity again.

When a person with a concussion performs cognitive and motor skill tasks simultaneously, they have a different gait pattern than a healthy individual, and we can identify those anomalies in a person’s walk with radar,” said GTRI research engineer Jennifer Palmer.

More than 1 million concussions and other mild traumatic brain injuries are reported each year in the United States.  Catching them right after they happen can improve treatment and prevent further injury or other long-term health issues. Diagnosing concussion can be difficult, though, because the symptoms are not always easily visible or detectable, even though they last for weeks or months following the incident.

While methods exist for detecting concussion, most focus purely on cognitive impairment and do not assess accompanying motor skill deterioration.

Details of GTRI’s technique, which simultaneously examines a person’s cognitive and motor skills, were presented on April 26 at the SPIE Defense, Security and Sensing conference in Orlando. Using radar for gait analysis would be faster and less intrusive than existing techniques. The assessment would be done with radar systems similar to those used by police for measuring the speed of vehicles.

The GTRI research team compared how 10 healthy individuals walked normally and when impaired. For the impairment scenario, individuals wore goggles that simulated alcohol impairment. Past research has shown that concussion impairment is equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.05%.

Each individual performed four 30-second walking tasks: a normal walk, walk while saying the months of the year in reverse order, walk while wearing the goggles, and walk while wearing the goggles and performing the cognitive task. For each task, the subjects walked away from the radar system, turned around and walked back toward the radar system.

By looking for differences in the gait patterns of normal and impaired individuals, researchers found that healthy individuals could be distinguished from impaired individuals wearing the goggles. Healthy individuals demonstrated a more periodic gait with regular and higher velocity foot kicks and faster torso and head movement than impaired individuals when completing a cognitive task.

The results also indicated that if no cognitive task was performed, a healthy individual’s gait pattern was not statistically different when wearing and not wearing the goggles.

We found that we needed to examine a person’s physical and mental capabilities at the same time to see a change in gait and detect impairment,” said research engineer Kristin Bing. “It’s easy for a person to concentrate on one task, but when that person has to multitask we can begin to discriminate between someone who is impaired and someone who is not.”

In the future, the researchers plan to reduce the size of the system so that it becomes more practical to use.

Although approval from the Food and Drug Administration will be required before this system can be used to diagnose concussion, seems this multitasking tool is no joke.

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