Ever since the 2010 Sports Illustrated cover story on concussions in the NFL, the subsequent suicides of Junior Seau, famed Pro Bowl linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, and other high profile players, the world has taken a serious look at the dangers of concussions, CTE and other sport-related brain injuries. Junior Seau’s autopsy revealed CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition arising from multiple concussions. Other NFL alumni have also emerged from the shadows with a variety of mental illnesses that physicians, the media and the NFL, have concluded are the result of multiple head injuries and repeated concussions sustained while playing contact sports.
CACTIS Foundation Chairman and CEO Dr. Hirsch Handmaker is also managing member of Conquering Concussions, LLC. He says the issue of concussions in the NFL, along with a series of class action lawsuits and strong advocacy campaigns for younger athletes, have all contributed to the current public obsession about the dangers of concussions. Dr. Handmaker, a research professor of radiology at The University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix, along with several colleagues, have applied their expertise to design a smartphone app that exposes athletes to the symptoms of concussion using virtual reality. The team applied for an NCAA “Mind Matters” grant with their idea.
“One of us had learned of Google cardboard virtual reality and used it as the ideal vehicle to deliver what we know about concusssions to athletes. The app lets them experienced the symptoms of concussion, so they know when to seek help,” he says.
Dr. Handmaker and his partners already have been awarded the grant’s Phase I and Phase II awards, totaling $100,000, to create a prototype of their app. They will present “Brain Gainz” at an award ceremony on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis, where the NCAA will decide if one or more of the five prototypes will be awarded a final prize to have their model adopted by the NCAA as an educational tool for its 400,000 athletes.
Dr. Handmaker stresses that the app is not a diagnostic tool, but rather an educational apparatus designed to teach college athletes what to expect, how to react and the negative consequences to electing to hide their concussion symptoms. However, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that the current app may lead to more advanced applications down the road. “If we win the next phase of the NCAA grant, the app could be deployed to all NCAA athletes through a social media campaign with Twitter, (#braingainz), Facebook and Instagram,” he explains. The social media plan has been inspired and aided by the participation of several prominent U of A Wildcat football players.
One of the dangers Dr. Handmaker and his colleagues are attempting to combat is the compulsion many athletes feel to “play through” a concussion, to prove their invincibility and not let down their teammates or disappoint fans.
“Most concussions will heal over time,” says Dr. Handmaker. “But an additional concussion that occurs before the brain has healed at a biochemical and microscopic level can lead to serious and occasionally fatal results, and potentially CTE.”
With the app, the aim is to inform young athletes how to recognize signs of a concussion, experiencing them first in virtual reality. Knowing the symptoms empowers athletes to speak up and get the rest and medical attention necessary to heal from a sports-related concussion.
Dr. Handmaker grew up in Tucson in a traditional Conservative Jewish home and graduated from the U of A, before leaving for medical school, a stint in the military and 22 years of practicing in San Francisco. He returned to Phoenix and Scottsdale where he and his family joined Temple Kol Ami, where he remains a member.
Dr. Handmaker credits his interest in medicine to close family members who were observant Jews. “But more than that, they were ethical and spiritual Jews who were dedicated to their families, their professions and doing mitzvot for the people in their sphere of influence.”