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Brain injury technology sprints from lab to market via winning collaboration

Brain injury technology sprints from lab to market via winning collaboration

Health professor joins forces with Innovation York and MaRS Innovation to build and release much-needed new tool to assess concussions and dementia.

Lauren Sergio

Last year, York University Professor Lauren Sergio undertook a ground-breaking study on the effect of concussions on neurological skills in elite hockey players. The findings were not uplifting: Athletes with a history of concussions showed prolonged performance deficits. This shortfall was the result of concussion-induced disruptions in the section of the brain that’s responsible for movement guidance.

Through this research, Sergio raised a vital point: The existing ways of assessing functional abilities after a concussion are failing. Taking the bull by the horns, she created a new technology to better assess traumatic brain injury. She turned to Innovation York, York University’s innovation office, to commercialize her product. In collaboration with MaRS Innovation (of which York is a member) and armed with FedDev funding, the new technology is slated to hit the market in 2018.

“York University’s Brain Dysfunction Indicator is a simple and accurate neurocognitive assessment tool for traumatic brain injury,” Sergio, member of the Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA) program, explains.


“The line from research to social benefit, from new knowledge to the service of society, could not be more striking in this case,” says Vice-President Research & Innovation Robert Haché. “Professor Sergio’s Brain Dysfunction Indicator is a remarkable new tool that will improve the health outcomes of Canadians.”

“Digital health is growing and providing key health outcomes for healthcare organizations and their patients. Software-based systems, like the Brain Dysfunction Indicator, are accelerating the process of helping patients better understand their medical situation,” says MaRS Innovation President & CEO Rafi Hofstein. “MaRS Innovation played a critical role in identifying a suitable receptor for the Brain Dysfunction Indicator, negotiating business terms for its license and closing the deal with a Toronto-based company. We look forward to seeing the company bring this York University technology to the market,” he adds.

Concussions becoming epidemic problem in Canadian children and youth

The need for this technology is great. Much has been written about concussions becoming an epidemic problem in Canadian children and youth, ages 10 to 18 years. Concussions in sport are a recognized public health issue because of their frequency and their potential short- and long-term consequences.

Above: Concussions are becoming an epidemic problem in Canadian children and youth, ages 10 to 18 years

Concussions are becoming an epidemic problem in Canadian children and youth, ages 10 to 18 years

Statistics from the Government of Canada illustrate this epidemic:

  •  Sixty-four per cent of visits to hospital emergency departments, among 10- to 18-year-olds, are related to participation in sports, physical activity and recreation;
  • Among children and youth who visit an emergency department for a sports-related head injury, 39 per cent were diagnosed with concussions, while a further 24 per cent were possible concussions; and
  • Football, soccer and hockey have all shown a greater than 40 per cent increase in rates of reported head injury (relative to other injuries) between 2004 and 2014 for children and youth.

This, naturally, rings up a hefty health care tab. Research provided by Innovation York says the average costs associated with a single concussion are as follows:

  • Emergency room visit: $1,664;
  • CT scan: $3,665; and
  • Hospital stay: $34,030

According to the National Population Health Study of Neurological Conditions (2014), the combined health care system costs and out-of-pocket caregiver costs related to dementia in Canada amounted to $10.4 billion in 2016. By 2031, this figure is expected to increase by 60 per cent, to $16.6 billion.

Business opportunity ripe for new tool

Business conditions were ripe for the Brain Dysfunction Indicator (BrDI). In terms of a market,  many different parties would be interested – the health care sector, senior living and insurance providers, the education sector (schools) and employers.

On a wider scale, the global market for brain health applications of software and biometrics (the measurement of unique physical characteristics, such as facial features) was over $1 billion in 2012. By 2020, it is forecast to reach $6 billion.

Technology commercialization, collaboration at its finest

BrDI’s jump to commercialization was facilitated by Innovation York, which builds vital connections among the research community, industry and non-profit partners to foster new discoveries and maximize research opportunities.

“Innovation York took the idea to MaRS Innovation in order to see it through to the marketplace. In fact, the commercialization of this new technology is the perfect example of collaboration at its best,” says Hassan Jaferi, commercialization manager at both Innovation York and MaRS Innovation.

Hassan Jaferi

Hassan Jaferi

An Intellectual Property Agreement was established between Sergio and York; and an Agency Agreement was established between York and MaRS Innovation, making MaRS Innovation the exclusive commercialization agent.

How does the new technology work?

Brain Dysfunction Indicator in action

BrDI is a touch-screen sized electronic diagnostic tool that measures hand-eye coordination tasks as a way of assessing pre-dementia, in under 10 minutes, and post-concussion with more than 85 per cent accuracy. A prototype of a functional assessment tool, related to this technology, is in development. It will be able to prevent functional decline in early dementia.

Subjects complete various tasks that measure their onscreen neurocognitive abilities. In the diagram below, the effect of concussions is clear: Here, when comparing the movements of non-concussed with concussed participants, in V/vertical and HR/horizontal rotated movements, it’s easy to spot the deficit.

There’s no doubt the BrDI is a game-changer in a rapidly evolving field that will lead to improved health outcomes for Canadians and youth in particular. It’s also a collaboration success story for Innovation York and MaRS Innovation.

The original research study by Sergio, “The effect of concussion history on cognitive-motor integration in elite hockey players,” was published in Future Science journal Concussion (2016). Sergio also co-wrote, with others at York University, a related article in Concussion (2016): “Prolonged cognitive-motor impairments in children and adolescents with a history of concussion.”

A National Hockey League draft prospect uses the Brain Dysfunction Indicator

A National Hockey League draft prospect uses the Brain Dysfunction Indicator

Another key article, “Cognitive-motor integration deficits in young adult athletes following concussion,” was published in BioMed Central’s Sports Science, Medicine & Rehabilitation (2015). A related press release, “York U concussion research shows lasting brain damage in elite level athletes,” was published by York University (September 2016). For more information about Sergio, visit her faculty profile.

A new graphic, animated whiteboard offers an overview of Innovation York. To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, watch the York Research Impact Story, see the infographic poster or visit the YouTube playlist.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,