Scientists are developing a handheld eye-scanner for detecting traumatic brain injury

The first 60 minutes following a traumatic brain injury such as concussion are often referred to as a patient’s “golden hour.” Identifying and diagnosing the head trauma’s severity within this narrow time frame can be crucial in implementing treatment, preventing further harm, and even saving someone’s life. Unfortunately, this can be more difficult than it may seem, since symptoms often only present themselves hours or days following an accident. Even when symptoms are quickly recognizable, first responders need to confirm them and access to CT and MRI scans is often needed, which is only available at hospitals that can be from the scene of the injury.

[Related: When to worry about a concussion.]

To clear this immense hurdle, a team at UK’s University of Birmingham set out to design a tool capable of quickly and accurately assessing potential TBI incidents. Their resulting prototype, that fits in the palm of a hand, has detected TBI issues within postmortem animal samples. As detailed in a new paper published in Science Advances, a new, lightweight tool developed by the team combines a smartphone, a safe-to-use laser dubbed EyeD, and a Raman spectroscopy system to assess the structural and biochemical health of an eye—specifically the area housing the optical nerve and neuroretina. Both optic nerve and brain biomarkers function within an extremely intricate, precise balance, so even the subtlest changes within an eye’s molecular makeup can indicate telltale signs of TBI.

After focusing their device towards the back of the eye, EyeD’s smartphone camera issues an LED flash. The light passes through a beam splitter while boosted by an accompanying input laser, and then travels through another mirror while refracted by the spectrometer. This offers a view of various lipid and protein biomarkers sharing identical biological information as those within the brain. The readings are then fed into a neural network program to aid in rapidly classifying TBI and non-TBI examples.

The team first tested EyeD on what’s known as a “phantom eye,” an artificial approximation of the organ often used during the development and testing of retinal imaging technology. After confirming EyeD’s ability to align and focus on the back of an eye, researchers moved onto clinical testing using postmortem pig eye tissue.

Although the tool currently only exists as a proof-of-concept, researchers are ready to begin assessing clinical feasibility and efficacy studies, then move on to real world human testing. If all goes as planned, EyeD devices could soon find their way into the hands of emergency responders, where they can dramatically shorten TBI diagnosis time gaps.