With the prevalence of smartphones, finding medical uses for this new technology has been merely speculation. A recent proof of concept published in Nature explores a smartphone app connected to a special camera for concussion recovery.


Concussions, or mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), are caused by a blow to the head that jars and damages the brain in the skull. For many people, symptoms typically resolve within a few days or weeks. However, about 10% of cases result in chronic disability, including depression and anxiety. Currently, diagnostic tools for detecting this long-term disability is limited to monitoring symptom severity for months. Though mTBI biomarker research has gained much traction, there are many obstacles that limit its effectiveness, such as the blood-brain barrier or extremely low concentrations.

A study published in Nature magazine posits that exosomes and smartphones could be a novel diagnostic tool for physicians to easily and quickly diagnose postconcussion syndrome. Exosomes are small vesicles that carry genetic information and proteins from their mother cells. Recently, clinical use of exosomes has been limited due to their small size and the lengthy amount of time required to isolate and analyze them.

“We developed our microfluidic-based Mobile Exosome Detector (μMED) to quickly isolate and profile (<1 hr) brain-derived exosomes”, wrote by Dr. Jina Ko, the lead researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Provided is a picture detailing the mechanism of μMED, which uses a combination of microbeads, modular chip, specialized optic camera and smartphone. This process begins with isolation of neuronal exosomes, amplification using fluorescence and an over-the-counter camera that takes advantage of the bright LED light on a smartphone’s camera. Dr. Ko states that the entire process takes less than an hour, a substantial decrease from the previous methods (ultracentrifugation) that require over a day. Following isolation, the fluorescence signal can be analyzed by a custom app on the phone to help the physician monitor the mild TBI severity and prognose secondary injuries.

μMED may be the future of mTBI monitoring, providing an objective, quick, and cheap method to determine the severity of a concussion that might not show up on standard structural imaging. The modularity of the chip may also have future implications in providing a more thorough and holistic view of the recovering brain.

Nature, 2016. DOI: 10.1038/srep31215