"The GIRTA was immensely valuable to my research. During my travel experience, I set up our hardware system at these two locations and ran calibration and diagnostic tests to ensure optimal data quality."

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Travel Report: Shaun Fickling

Shaun Fickling, a PhD student in the School of Engineering Science, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further his research in Minnesota and South Dakota.

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March 28, 2018

The Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) presented me the opportunity to travel to the USA to collaborate with world-leading researchers at Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center (Rochester, MN) and Sanford Sports Science Institute (Sioux Falls, SD).

My research is focused on objective assessment of sports-related concussions using brain vital signs, developed by my research group at the Surrey NeuroTech Lab. Derived from electroencephalography (EEG), brain vital signs assess different aspects of brain function (auditory sensation, basic attention, cognitive processing) and outputs easily interpretable scores on a scale of 1-100.

Using individual baseline measurements as a reference, we can track changes in these scores resulting from concussion. Preliminary findings demonstrate that this framework provides a clinically relevant approach to evaluate the effects of sports-related brain injury. The objectives of this study are to:

  1. Establish a diagnostic profile of brain vital signs changes after concussion in athletes
  2. Monitor the recovery process post injury to improve return-to-play decision making
  3. Look for evidence of accumulated head injury in the absence of a clinical diagnosis for concussions.

To achieve these objectives, collaborating with experienced clinical partners is necessary. This study forms part of a broader collaboration with partners from other research facilities, brought together by the Mayo Clinic to develop a comprehensive concussion diagnosis and management battery.

Brain vital signs will be recorded along with blood biomarkers, metabolomics, accelerometry, and video footage of injury events. These will be benchmarked against standardized concussion questionnaires and clinical evaluations. Operating at two independent sites allows for additional comparisons across geographical areas, age-groups, and sporting codes (hockey, football, etc.). Sanford and Mayo clinic already work with local sports teams and provide the most up-to-date standard of clinical care to these athletes in the case of a concussion.

The GIRTA was immensely valuable to my research. During my travel experience, I set up our hardware system at these two locations and ran calibration and diagnostic tests to ensure optimal data quality. I trained clinical staff in the science behind brain vital signs and how to collect the raw EEG data required to assess these scores. Participant recruitment, assessment, and concussion management is now active for the upcoming athlete seasons. The data collected will form the bulk of my doctorate in Biomedical Engineering. Now that the infrastructure and training is established, we have plans to expand to additional sporting codes and age groups in future.

During my travels, I also ventured out to hike the Palisades state park and Devil’s Gulch in South Dakota. I took a stunning road trip through the infinite cornfields of the Midwest. I explored Minneapolis and St Paul, attended a Minnesota Vikings game in their new stadium that will host Superbowl LII next year. My Mayo Clinic visit also coincided with their 3rd Summit on Concussion in Ice Hockey where we presented brain vital signs in front of world-renowned researchers in concussion science.

Many thanks to Dr Thayne Munce, Daniel Poel, Dr Aynsley Smith, Kyle Farrell, my supervisor Dr Ryan D’Arcy, and SFU for this fantastic opportunity.

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