Coming from a family of elite sportspeople, Dr Ashleigh Kennedy is all too well aware of the impact of concussion.
As a professional American football player, her father sustained a number of head injuries, and her sister – the Canadian team captain at the Athens 2004 Olympics – competed on the biggest stage of her life still struggling with the effects of a recent concussion.
“She suffered a concussion two days before the Olympics, she missed a tumbling pass and landed on her head, so she was competing with a massive concussion,” Dr Kennedy, herself a sprinter for Stanford, recalls.
“Concussion wasn’t as big a topic back then. So her coaches just told her to get up and get on, but she didn’t, she couldn’t.
“She told me that when she competed in the Olympics, she couldn’t even tell which corner of the floor she was supposed to start her routine in, because she was so concussed. Her orientation was gone.”
With her own personal experience – coupled with insight gained through studying human biology and exercise physiology and Stanford and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – and the growing awareness of concussion on an international stage, Dr Kennedy realised there must be a solution to empower and safeguard the 69million people globally who sustain from head injury each year.
Working alongside her husband, Dr Matthew Kennedy – a family physician who longed to find the data to better support his patients who came to him with head injuries – Neurovine was born in 2019, and is now set to revolutionise concussion care on a global scale.
Bringing together extensive research and groundbreaking technology, Neurovine has created a headband alongside a smartphone app, using AI to monitor a patient in real time with the results available on screen.
For the first time, the ‘invisible’ impact of head injury is being made visible, with patients now having the information that could protect their brain health and future wellbeing at their fingertips.
Currently in trial in 26 clinics in its native Canada, Neurovine is set to launch across Canada and the United States in September 2022, with UK expansion planned for 2023.
“I think this will be transformational for brain health in general,” says Dr Kennedy.
“Regardless of what the injury mechanism was, whether it was stroke, concussion, we feel this solution will be really, really important to engage patients in the recovery process, because right now, they’re bystanders.
“This is a patient centric recovery tool which, once you’ve been diagnosed with concussion, supports you through all of your rehab until you’re back to work or school.
“It’s really a big focus for us is to empower the patient, so they can go back to their doctor or their clinician if they’re not well, but also so they can advocate for themselves while they’re going back to work or back to school. How do we support them in cognitive pacing, so they can get back to the workplace or school and not overexert?
“I do think this will transform the role the patient plays in their brain health.”
The high-tech device – which will be a Class 2 Medical Device in Canada and the USA – can be used by people of any gender and age, but is set to play a key role in supporting young people to manage concussion, a demographic identified as being particularly at risk of sustaining invisible damage which can increase over time.
Statistics estimate that around 5.3million people in the United States alone live with a lifelong disability as the result of concussion.
“Brain health in youth is really important. Their brains are so dynamic, they’re changing so fast, that we really want to make sure they’re healed, so that we don’t have this accumulation over time,” says Dr Kennedy.
“And that’s the tricky piece, with football often the concussions are small, we call them sub-concussive loads, and the patient or athlete may not feel incredibly concussed, but those sub-concussive loads build up over time.
“We want to make the technology as accessible as possible to young players so they can deal with those small injuries well, and that they don’t end up at the end of their careers with significant injury.”
And that cumulative effect is something that Dr Kennedy saw very clearly during her research while developing Neurovine.
“I met with the Canadian Football League players’ association, with all these retired football players who said they were taught to get back on the field as soon as they can, that taking a knee was weak,” she says.
“But you could tell a lot of them had cognitive decline. They said it themselves, that they can see the impact now they’re ageing.
“But what was really interesting was when I asked if they allowed their kids and grandkids to play football, given their experience, and the resounding answer was yes, because the sport gave them so much. So much discipline, so much purpose.
“So if these kids are still going to play, we need to get them back to the field safely, with as much prevention as possible so if they do get injured, having the tools in place to help them recover fully before they’re sent back on the field.
“Concussion is a really hot topic for us because of the NFL, and with UFC too. There’s all of these lawsuits right now from retired athletes, suing the institution because they’re saying ‘You didn’t let me heal. You didn’t take good care of my brain’.
“Another factor is that we have awesome innovation in our hospitals, but then patients are sent home to relatively little support. We wanted to fill that gap.”
Based on the concept of an EEG headband Dr Kennedy had built while in her first year at university, the ambition was to create a means of relaying what was happening in someone’s head onto the screen of a smart device, to enable them to take control of their recovery.
Absolutely believing in its potential, although initially not having the full suite of technological capability to create it, the couple dedicated themselves to making Neurovine a reality.
“I worked as a consultant, working with wearable technology companies to validate their technology. I took contracts with hospital institutions, and all of the money from those contracts went to pay our first engineer,” says Dr Kennedy.
“So we bootstrapped, we got a couple of young young engineers, and they built a really simple proof of concept. And then we raised the money to build everything from scratch.
“We really did not want to get into manufacturing; however, it soon became clear we needed to own the hardware for our system to be highly accurate and comfortable.”
“It’s fair to say it has been a slog.”
But having formally launched the company in 2019, its progress has been rapid and significant.
While the COVID-19 pandemic did delay its investment and roll-out plans somewhat, in other ways, it helped to prove how effective the concept of Neurovine could be.
“It’s been a blessing and a curse,” says Dr Kennedy.
“While it has held us back in some ways, it has also partly demonstrated the need for digital health. This was always a digital health tool that was intended to be sent home with patients to allow remote monitoring so that physicians could get an idea of how the patient was progressing at home.
“COVID really just increased the need for remote technologies like this.”
Future plans for Neurovine include the development of a clinician portal, which is currently being created by the fast-growing in-house team, but at its launch will be a patient platform, with work underway to create partnerships around the world.
“We’re always looking for partnerships, particularly with sports teams who we can send the technology to and support them,” says Dr Kennedy.
“Especially with soccer being such an underserved area when it comes to concussion, it really needs to be taken more seriously, so that could be an area where we could give support.
“We’re also looking at boxing. Conversations are ongoing and are building up ahead of our launch next September, but we do have a number of interested parties. The groundwork is being laid, it’s a very exciting time.”
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