Hong is the chief of the Division of Sports Medicine and holds the Hamot and Sturgis Endowed Chair of the department of family, community and preventative medicine.
Whatever you do, don’t call Eugene Hong an expert on concussions.
“I’m a student of concussions, I’m not an expert on concussions,” says Hong, the associate dean for Primary Care and Community Health and chief of the Division of Sports Medicine at the College of Medicine.
Though he has been lecturing, writing and researching concussions for the past 12 years and has even published a medical school textbook chapter on the subject, he says he’s been “struggling” with the mysterious and evasive nature of concussions.
“In the area of concussions, we actually have a lot of questions and very few answers. There’s a fair amount of expert opinion out there but there’s not a lot of hard evidence in the research aspects of concussions,” Hong says.
Hong believes that his research using vibrotactile technology on a portable device that could be used to diagnose concussions earlier will help bring more understanding to the topic. And the Department of Defense agrees, as it has given funding and the actual device to Hong in the hopes that it could be used on the field in military combat.
The device contains an array of seven sensors strapped across the patient’s forehead that applies a light pressure in a specific pattern. Concussions alter a person’s tactile ability to sense the pattern, so a concussed person would not be able to sense and repeat the pattern like a non-concussed person would.
Hong says he believes that if the portable device succeeds in appropriately diagnosing concussions earlier, the DoD will be able to use it in military settings and fields. He also believes that the device would be able to test blast-related military concussions in a similar way that it is currently being used to test sports-related concussions.
Hong says balance is usually a key factor in determining concussions, but devices used to test balance are not portable. Clinical diagnosis relies on medical history and exams, not a black-and-white blood test or an imaging test that instantly determines whether someone’s been concussed.
“I like to compare it with somebody who’s having chest pains, and we can draw some blood work and tell definitively whether that person’s having a heart attack by specific enzymes that leak when the heart muscle is damaged. We don’t have that equivalent in a diagnostic tool for concussions,” Hong says.
It is also hard finding volunteers for concussion testings, but Hong has an advantage as the head team physician at Drexel and the team physician St. Joseph’s University. So far, he has tested the device on 11 subjects who suffered sports-related concussions, which is more than the University of Virginia, the other university besides the Florida Institute of Technology using DoD funding to test the device, has been able to do.
“What happens with any of these athletes with a concussion is, as sports medicine physicians involved with the universities, we get notified anyway and we evaluate them and if it’s a significant concussion, we take care of them,” Hong says, adding that this way the volunteers’ concussions are clinically confirmed with a specialist as well as with the device.
With the help of Drexel research assistant Kathryn Wallace Wilson, Hong has been working on the project for 18 months, including a 12-month testing period that ends in May. They already received an extension from the DoD and are unsure if the research will be funded again, but they haven’t yet analyzed all the data yet and hope that the information will encourage further funding.