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Computerized Tests For Concussions May Be Unreliable

Schools worried about concussions increasingly use computerized tests to tell if a student athlete has a brain injury. But new research says those tests aren't reliable enough to diagnose concussion, or to tell if it's safe to return to play.

The researchers looked at research on one computerized neuropsychologist test, called ImPACT, that is widely used by colleges and high schools. (Here's one NPR story on how high schools use ImPACT to assess concussions.)

It's also used by the National Football League and National Hockey League.

But very few studies have been done on the reliability of these tests in real-world situations.

So Lester Mayers, a sports medicine doctor at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., and Tom Redick, an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Columbus, Ind., surveyed the data. They weren't happy with what they found. They say computerized tests aren't reliable enough to serve as the sole measure of brain health.

"I'm not suggesting abandoning the whole practice," Redick told Shots. "But I do think that we want to be sure we're not using something just because it's popular." Their work is published in the current Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology.

One issue with the computerized testing is the length of time that passes from when a healthy athlete takes a baseline test, and when they're tested after a suspected concussion.

After a few weeks, the test becomes increasingly unreliable, the review found. That's an issue because the manufacturers recommend testing athletes twice in high school, and once in college. "This increases the likelihood that a true cognitive impairment will be missed," the authors write.

Another issue is how reliable the tests are in determining when it's safe for an athlete to return to play without risking further brain damage. Just three studies looked at that. Those studies were very small, and the results inconsistent, the authors report. They write:

"We therefore question the rationale of using ImPACT for clinical management of sport-related concussion and specifically for determining the time of return to play."

There is no gold standard for figuring out when an athlete is safe to return to play, Redick says, which makes it hard for coaches, parents, and athletes to know what to do. But computerized testing is not the solution to that problem.

The U.S. military has invested millions into computerized testing service members for traumatic brain injury, but that program has been a debacle, according to an investigative report last November by NPR and ProPublica. Researchers say the computerized test used, called ANAM, isn't robust enough to screen for problems that could continue weeks or months after a brain injury.

Last August, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that parents shouldn't let children box, urging parents to recommend sports "that do not encourage intentional head injuries."

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