Diagnosing concussions with voice research

Posted at 10:34 AM, Sep 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-14 10:34:47-04

After a car accident, Russell Banks, a communicative sciences and disorders doctoral student, focused on his true passion of helping others with brain injuries.

Banks spent three years working in Utah under Eric Hunter, associate chairperson of MSU’s Department of CSD, at the National Center for Voice and Speech and now conducts research in Hunter’s Voice Biomechanics and Acoustics Lab while pursuing his Ph.D.

Banks’ research aims to develop a method to diagnose concussions by looking at how the voice changes before and after a head injury. Banks began his concussion research after receiving the Strosacker Fellowshipand a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

 “What I set out to do was to find a reliable way to find if a person has been hit hard enough to do damage, because we still don’t have a reliable measure for that,” Banks said. “Even medical scans like a MRI and CT scans don’t tell us everything.”

One of the main methods of identifying head injuries is the balance exam because certain muscular changes happen after a concussion occurs and many people are unable to keep their balance. However, kids and adults alike have figured out how to cheat the system. 

“In the pre-test that athletes are given before the [sports] season, they just botch it completely and test poorly, like they just have bad balance,” Banks said. “So when they get hit in the head, there’s basically no difference.”

Banks believes it is much more difficult to fake a voice exam, as most people don’t know what a “good” or “bad” voice is. 

To conduct his research, Banks teamed up with Christian Poellabauer, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame, to access his lab and data recordings of athletes at the beginning of their seasons. Then, they waited for injuries to occur.

Once the voices were recorded, Banks and his team ran them through innovative computer software and analysis programs, which provide data about pitch, volume and speed. After an individual sustained a head injury, Banks repeated the process and compared the data to see if any changes occurred.

“The findings are preliminary and not yet published,” Banks said. “What I can say, though, is that there are changes that happen before and after a head injury.”

Banks also hopes to find a measurement method that can be used on the sideline of a game or in a hospital immediately after someone has sustained a head injury. He envisions a person could speak into a machine and it would say whether significant damage had occurred.

While athletes are an important group to consider, the research also has merit for the aging population, people who have experienced a car accident and people who injure themselves while engaging in recreational activities.