Neurologist Laura Balcer and her group at the School of Medicine’s neurology department are bridging the gap between research and practice — by literally taking their work to the practice field.

Balcer’s cohort is researching the efficacy of a simple sideline test to detect concussions in athletes, and, with the help of several Penn teams, she’s getting real-world results.

Along with post-baccalaureate student Kristin Galetta, Balcer recently published an initial study on the King-Devick test in the medical journal Neurology. In the test, athletes who might have suffered a concussion read a series of numbers from a note card. A delay of five seconds greater than the athlete’s baseline score on the test was a “pretty clear indication” of a concussion, Galetta said.

After initial research with mixed martial arts fighters, Balcer and Galetta have since turned their focus to an ongoing study of the test involving over 200 Penn varsity athletes in six sports.

Based on the preliminary data, Galetta said the test is likely transferable to other sports. Balcer called the early returns “encouraging.”

“Somebody qualified on the sidelines would give the athletes a test if there was a chance they had suffered a concussion,” Galetta said. The current study is looking at Penn football, sprint football, men’s and women’s soccer and men’s and women’s basketball, but Galetta said they may pick up more teams as the spring season begins.

After he was contacted by Balcer’s group, Penn Athletics head trainer Eric Laudano took the lead on collaborating with the researchers.

“Anytime we are able to be assisted by the medical experts at Penn, I am on board,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We have the best medical minds in the country and world here at Penn and to be able to collaborate with any of them to assist in the health care of our athletes is a special opportunity.”

Both parties recognized the benefits of collaborating on the study. For Laudano, it was a great opportunity for his athletes to help protect themselves and their peers.

“All the trainers have really gotten on board with this, and we’ve developed relationships with them,” Galetta said.

“I don’t think [collaboration is] something that commonly happens,” she added, “but it’s something that is so relevant to what’s going on in sports, so I think that they were willing to help us.”

Current concussion diagnosis requires a medical assessment of a patient’s symptoms, a subjective analysis which can be tripped up by an athlete eager to get back on the field.

The objective King-Devick test not only eliminates ambiguity in quick sideline diagnosis, Galetta said, but it does not have to be administered by a physician.

“This tool is a breakthrough tool in the management of head injuries and concussions,” Laudano wrote. “The King-Devick test allows us to asses the objective findings by examining an area of the brain that is impossible for the athletes to memorize or cheat on.

“We recognize that our athletes are competitive and want to play and win. But in our position, we must protect them from further injury and protect their future as a person. This test takes the guesswork out of whether or not the athlete is being truthful in their subject communication to us regarding their symptoms.”

But as Laudano and his partners at the Medical School point out, this test is just one in a growing set of tools to identify head trauma.

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