Voice activated: New app aims to diagnose concussions

SHERWOOD, Ore. (KOIN) --  Looking back, Austin Hall remembers that part of his life as the culmination of a Cinderella tale. He had done it the hard way, working his way from walk-on to scholarship football player at Oregon State, living a dream he’d conjured up as a kid while growing up in Beaverton.  

Nine years later, now a 31-year-old father, Hall also looks back on the fallout he’s experienced from football as a nightmare. 

“The fear, the things that I’ve had to overcome – I don’t wish that on my worst enemies,” he said. 

The migraines started when Hall was 27 and they didn’t subside. He got frustrated: He couldn’t exercise, speaking was difficult and he said he couldn’t be the father he wanted to be. 

“I felt like a caged lion,” he said. 

A doctor, after a 15-minute consultation, diagnosed it as anxiety. But Hall, a minister who considers himself spiritually aligned, knew that couldn't be the case. It had to be biological. 

Hall’s Cinderella story turned into a familiar, cautionary tale: former athlete with a history of brain trauma deals with concussion repercussions years after their playing days are over. Many, like Hall, were athletes during a time – a relatively recent one, at that – where concussion prevention wasn’t a priority. Hall said he was never taught to seek attention from trainers, even at times when he couldn't feel anything in his arm or face. 

But as we learn more about concussions, and the effects they have, diagnosing them -- and getting the proper treatment -- has become critical. In Sherwood, doctors and scientists are working on something that would make that process less subjective and more accurate. Henry O'Connell and Dr. Russ Kort have teamed up with Canary Speech to develop Canary Concussion, a voice-recognition app that could diagnose a concussion with science in a matter of a few sentences. 

“The ability, not only to measure accurately that an individual has a concussion in a simple, quick, non-invasive-way test, such as a few sentences, is critical, to not just identifying it, but to following the process of their recovery," O'Connell said. 

The app, which is still in development, turns complicated science into an easy test. Subjects are asked to repeat words and numbers so the app can create a personalized audio fingerprint.

O'Connell has plenty of experience when it comes to voice recognition and diagnosis. 

Over a year ago, O'Connell worked on an interactive project used to recognize the possibility of Alzheimer disease in patients. In each case, they'd meet with patients and, using the technology, ask them to say one sentence. O'Connell said their diagnoses were 96.4% accurate -- a precise figure for a diagnosis that requires thousands of voice markers. 

O'Connell and other experts then turned their attention to concussions. He said there are only 12, already identified, voice markers they need. 

Kort said they're in the process of collecting voices for testing. They hope it'll be available soon. Grace Sasaki hopes so, too. 

Grace's daughter, Kaya, has dreams of figure skating in the Winter Olympics. Nine months ago, while she was training for jumps off the ice, she hit her head. Not knowing what it was, Kaya returned home. 

"She hit her head -- that's all I knew," said Grace. "She just told me like kids do." 

Grace prescribed a standard remedy: some ice and a little bit of rest. The symptoms didn't come until a few days later, but they were gradual. If Grace and Kaya would've known what had actually happened, the recovery plan would've been very different.

Each year, the Center For Disease Control estimates more than 170,000 children get emergency room treatment for traumatic-brain injuries, like concussions. What that statistic doesn't account for, though, are the kids who go undiagnosed -- just like Kaya. 

A week after she first hit her head, Kaya was back on the ice at the Sherwood Ice Arena. During the skate she crashed with someone else, hitting her head hard, once again. 

She suffered a concussion -- the second in a week span. The effects would linger for months. Every morning, Kaya would wake up around 4:30 every morning, Grace said. Kaya struggled to get out of bed. Her headaches were constant. Sensitivity to light gave her fatigue. 

"Her whole system was shutting down," Grace said of her daughter. 

Looking back, Grace wishes she would've known about the first head injury. 

"If I had something in my hands, I could do something," Grace said. "Except crying every day and don't know what to do."

Video: Walk through, taking the concussion app test

That's O'Connnell and Kort's goal for Canary Concussion. Kort, a former skier, said it's common for athletes to want to get back onto the field or ice as soon as possible, even after they suffered a concussion. In Kaya's case, it went undiagnosed -- and the results from the second concussion crippled her for months.

"If they get a second concussion, that can be catastrophic," Kort said. "This is a tool we can put in the hands of everybody so they can protect their children."

The app, if successful, could be groundbreaking. But what are the chances? 

Dr. Glen Zielinski is a functional neurologist with the Canadian Olympic Team who also serves on the board of the Brain Injury Alliance of Oregon. He's not a part of Canary Concussion. He said he's cautiously optimistic about the voice-recognition technology being used for concussions. 

"Concussions have in many cases - pathways are disrupted that can affect the voice - and I can see where this technology could be helpful there," Zielinski said. "The concern that I have is there are a myriad types of concussions - all sorts of different ways your brain can be injured - and not all of them affect the voice.

"My concern is there may be a whole pile of false negatives," he said.

Still, the idea of the app is enough to get people excited -- especially people like Austin Hall. 

To this day, Hall said he loves the game of football. It was his dream, after all. Being a walk-on, he had to fight for every second of playing time. Back then, he wouldn't leave the field unless someone pulled him off it. One memory -- or lack of one -- of a traumatic brain injury comes to Hall's mind. 

On a kickoff to start the second half of a game, Hall -- a "wedgebuster," whose job entailed him running down and blowing up blockers from the opposing team -- sprinted down and threw his body at the kick returner. He said his chin strap broke off and his helmet flew back. His head had just been involved in a huge collision. But his job wasn't over. He said fixed his helmet and went to his safety position for the following defensive possession. Later on, he had a head-to-head tackle with a tight end, whom he estimated was 70 pounds bigger than him The impact forced him to his hands and knees.

He said he doesn't remember much after: the remaining plays, the celebration of the win or even coming home.

"I remember seeing these plays (in the film room) and thinking, 'I don't remember seeing them,'" Hall said.

For the past 4 years, Hall has been visiting Kort, who has been helping him out with his headaches and mental fatigue, side effects he "100% -- without a doubt" attributes to his football days. 

"Without (Kort), I'd be in a bad spot," Hall said.

Because of this, Hall has become an ambassador for Kort, advising others with other brain-related problems to visit Kort. That's how David and Stephanie Etherly heard about him. 

From the outside, David looks perfectly healthy. 

"Until he tries to talk," Stephanie said. "You'd know nothing is wrong with him." 

It's been a long time since David put on pads and a football helmet. A former defensive back, he played high school football at Lake Oswego and Oregon State before he finished his college career at Portland State. Then, when NFL players went on strike in 1987, David -- a former Canadian Football League player, too -- filled in, playing 3 games for the Washington Redskins. His career ended shortly after.

It's a career filled with stories that David can't tell you. 

David and Stephanie first noticed a difference 3 years ago. There were breaks in his speech, deviations in conversation. 

"When he could talk, he thought he was going crazy," Stephanie said. 

Now, David can barely speak. He had never suffered a traumatic brain injury, Stephanie said. He just played the game.

During a recent interview, David and Stephanie were asked if they believe football is the reason he can't speak anymore. Stephanie looked at David and asked the same question, adding a "yes" if he did think it was the reason. He nodded his head and said yes. 

Video: David Etherly performs a hand-eye coordination test

Stephanie and David have 2 children of their own. Stephanie said she thinks the app would be beneficial to anyone who has children playing sports, or anyone who is active.

"The app would at least give you a heads up if something was going on, and it could give you treatment," she said.

It's technology they wish was around years ago. It's something Austin Hall thinks all coaches and trainers should have. It's an app Grace and Kaya want in their hands right now. 

With Canary Concussion, it's a possibility. 

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