A growing number of Ottawa athletes are playing computer games at a Carleton University laboratory to determine how a concussion affects their memory and concentration skills.

The computer-based test called imPACT, Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, is a neuro-cognitive evaluation system that takes athletes through a series of exercises using colours, numbers and shapes to test their short-term memory and how easily they can be distracted.

A low test score gives doctors insight into the level of brain impairment, then re-testing is done either weeks or months after a concussion to determine how the recovery is going.  

"It doesn't actually diagnose concussions but it is a piece of the puzzle," said Dr. Taryn Taylor, the medical director of Carleton University's sport medicine clinic.  

"Unfortunately there is no test for concussions. You can't do an MRI, a CT scan or blood work but imPACT can help isolate some of the areas where they are still having deficits."  

Taylor wants athletes, both amateur and professional, to take the test at the start of a season to obtain a baseline score when they are performing at their best. If a concussion occurs, the athlete is tested again and the results are compared with the baseline score.

imPact test helps determine return to activity

Brittany Simpson, 24, is struggling to recover and cope with the lingering effects of five concussions suffer over a two-year period.

taryn taylor doctor concussion carleton university sports

Dr. Taryn Taylor uses imPACT at Carleton University's sport medicine clinic to test athletes from a variety of local amateur and professional teams. (CBC)

A Carleton University graduate, Simpson played on the school's varsity hockey team until 2013 when she was forced to quit the sport due to lingering symptoms from multiple concussions.

"Right now, I can't even put words into a sentence sometimes I get lost in what I'm trying to do. Concentration is huge for me and I have daily headaches. Some days my head and neck are so bad I just stay in my room," said Simpson.

Simpson has only recently returned to light aerobics and weight lifting, two years after her last concussion.

She has taken the imPACT testing several times in between her head injuries, which she credits for helping her decide when it was safe to go back onto the ice.

"It (the test) really showed me how to get back into the sport and my doctor helped me safely start playing hockey again," said Simpson.

"I loved playing hockey but was it really worth jeopardizing my future just to play hockey for a few more years? Baseline was a great thing to have."

Concussion symptoms can linger for years

Taylor says 85 per cent of people who suffer a concussion recover in two weeks. The remaining 15 per cent continue to face effects like headaches and memory loss for months, and sometimes years. 

"If you had a headache at the end (of the test) it would tell me that with some cognitive exertion you actually brought on some symptoms and that shows you are nowhere near ready to return to play," Taylor said.

When the clinic started offering the test five years ago, athletes slowly trickled in.

In 2014, the university clinic administered the test to 1,000 athletes including those who play on school teams, community hockey and football clubs, and players with the Ottawa 67's hockey team and Ottawa Fury FC soccer team.