BBC News

Virtual reality could spot concussion in footballers

By Laura May McMullan
Reporter, BBC Inside Out

media captionVirtual reality tests on footballers could spot brain injury

A virtual reality (VR) headset could help football club doctors diagnose concussion more accurately, researchers have claimed.

Dr Michael Grey, who is trialling the technology, said the £500 Oculus Rift system can quickly help medics detect "subtle changes" in players.

Trials of the technology follow several studies linking heading of footballs to degenerative brain disease.

The FA said it took the issue "extremely seriously".

Dr Grey, who has worked on the trial at the University of Birmingham and the University of East Anglia, said virtual reality technology helps to establish whether a player is concussed by testing their ability to balance at the same time as following instructions.

It would come into use when club doctors are forced to make decisions on the sidelines as to whether players should continue to play, he said.

image captionThe headset detects whether a player has concussion by testing their ability to balance at the same time as following instructions

'250 more' footballers with degenerative brain disease

"With our virtual reality balance test we're having the brain do one thing and then challenge it by tilting the room and it's only by doing this we see subtle changes that might not show up in a standard neurocognitive test."

"You will have players who say: 'No I'm fine, I want to go on'. But you do this test - or one like it - I think those questions go away," he added.

BBC reporter Laura May McMullan took the technology to West Bromwich Albion Football Club.

Baggies legend Jeff Astle died 15 years ago. A coroner ruled his death was caused by brain trauma, brought on by heading heavy leather footballs.

The club's director of performance, Dr Mark Gillett, said: "I think we're looking for functional tests that allow us to make a quick decision and technology such as that could potentially be very helpful."

Analysis: Laura May McMullan, Reporter, BBC Inside Out

At present, players have a baseline test - a clinical, physical and cognitive test at the start of the season.

Machinery is used, but it is far from state-of-the-art.

Currently, a pitch-side doctor is forced to make a decision on whether a player is concussed using more basic methods.

Virtual reality would work alongside the clinical tests to give the medics concrete neurological responses.

Dawn Astle quits interview with PFA chief Gordon Taylor

media captionDawn Astle quits interview with PFA chief Gordon Taylor

The daughter of a former professional footballer who died from brain trauma has walked out of a meeting with a top official in the game.

Dawn Astle was meeting Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), who she believes has a duty of care towards former players. But frustrated with his response, she leaves the room.

Her father Jeff Astle died in 2002 at the age of 59. A coroner ruled his brain trauma was caused by heading footballs.

The Astle family has campaigned for more research into the link between football and dementia.

Former Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion striker Andy Gray has backed the technology.

He tells the programme: "What football has no excuse about is embracing modern technology. It has no excuse. It can't say we don't have the money, it's awash with money.

"Paying millions and millions of pounds to footballers and then worrying very little about their health."

image captionFormer footballer Andy Gray says football has 'no excuse' about embracing modern technology

The FA's head of medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, said it established an expert panel in 2015 which issued new guidelines on concussion.

"These guidelines were designed to help recognise and manage concussion - from the time of injury through to a player's safe return to football," she said.

"The expert panel further agreed that research is particularly required into the issue of whether degenerative brain disease is more common in ex-footballers."

"We have recently agreed with the PFA to jointly fund and support this research as we believe that a collaborative approach will strengthen the credibility and resource available to the project."

You can see this story in full on BBC Inside Out West Midlands at 19:30 GMT on BBC One on Monday 20 March or via iPlayer afterwards.

Related Topics

  • University of East Anglia
  • University of Birmingham

More on this story

  • FA to fund 'six-figure' study to examine the link between dementia and playing football

  • Jeff Astle's daughter: Dad's job killed him