New gaming app tests, tracks brain function of young athletes at risk of concussion

A new gaming app, EQ — Active Brain Tracking, is a new tool in athletic concussion assessment that tracks symptoms of brain health.

EQ — Active Brain Tracking app to help with concussion management

Athletes at the Wickfest hockey tournament were given a one-year subscription to the EQ app, so they can track their brain function and watch for changes indicative of a head injury. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Young athletes at risk of concussions are being encouraged to play a video game before tying up their laces.

Gaming app, EQ — Active Brain Tracking, is a new athletic concussion assessment tool that helps track brain health.

Hundreds of girls at Hayley Wickenheiser's annual WickFest hockey tournament in Calgary were given a year-long subscription to the app.

Wickenheiser said in her 23 years of playing high-level hockey, she has seen how concussions can have a life-long effect on athletes.

"One of the problems with head trauma is you can't see it. I've had friends that are athletes that have gone through it. I've lost good friends to concussions with suicide and things like that. It's a real thing," said Wickenheiser, who serves as co-chair of the athlete advisory board for Highmark Interactive, the company that created the app.

The app creates a baseline for the user through a series of seven simple games. A full "check-in" takes 10 to 15 minutes, and players are encouraged to do it at least once a week. They can also do shorter check-ins or play individual games.

"We're measuring things like reaction time, like balance, immediate memory, delayed memory, trail making, visual motor function — all that good stuff within the application," said John Gardiner, chief operating officer with Highmark Interactive.

John Gardiner is the chief operating officer at Highmark Interactive, which created the EQ — Active Brain Tracking app. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Users are scored and can compete against other people. But ultimately, they're competing against themselves, comparing past and present scores.

"If there was a collision, we now could ask [the athlete] to do the same test at the point of collision, so they don't have to leave the field, don't have to necessarily get out of their equipment to go into a clinic. They could do the test right there," said Dr. Sanjeev Sharma, a Toronto-based emergency doctor and co-founder of Highmark Interactive.

Significant changes to the baseline indicate the athlete should go to a doctor for assessment.

Sharma said the idea for the app came to him when he noticed an increase in the number of patients with suspected concussions. The challenge, he said, was that there is no diagnostic test, so there was significant variability on how treatment decisions were made.

"I thought 'wow, if we could create a game that was engaging and fun … kids are going to want to use it, they're going to want to share,'" he said.

"If we can start to do tests that look like games — that are actually measuring balance, measuring the way your eyes track flying objects, measuring fine motor skills, measuring short-term memory — but those games are fun and they're engaging, now we've got a way of having kids interact with something that's mobile, that's easy to use."

For now, the goal is to target young, up-and-coming athletes instead of professionals, Sharma said.

"Eventually, that group of individuals will become the next generation of athletes," he said. "They'll enter that stage being aware of the risks around head injuries and concussions, and being more proactive when they have a head injury or concussion."

With files from Kate Adach