Hayley Wickenheiser’s reasons for helping develop video game technology to treat concussions are close to her heart.
The four-time Olympic gold medallist in women’s hockey remembers the dizziness and nausea she felt after taking a hit in a Swedish men’s pro league in 2008.
Wickenheiser also witnessed the deterioration of friend and former NHL player Steve Montador, who was diagnosed after his death in 2015 with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
CTE is a degenerative brain condition that doctors believe is caused by concussions.
Wickenheiser co-chairs the advisory board of Highmark Interactive, a Toronto digital therapeutics company developing video games to diagnose and treat concussion and brain injuries.
She’s joined on the board by former New Jersey Devils captain Bryce Salvador, snowboarder Mark McMorris and Pittsburgh Penguins director of sport science Andy O’Brien.
"Everyone involved with this project had a bit of a connection to head trauma in some way shape or form," Wickenheiser said in an interview. "Losing Steve Montador who was one of my best friends to … he obviously had CTE which we found out after he passed away. Watching him degrade as a person over the years, I think looking back after he passed away, I felt ‘Is there something I can do to honour Steve that will be to continue down this road and help other people?"’
Highmark is 12 to 18 months away from going to market with the games, according to founder Dr. Sanjeev Sharma.
"Our fundamental thesis is between neuroplasticity, where the brain does heal itself, and the proper utilization of gaming and the stimulus that gaming provides the brain, we believe we can build a game that will eventually enable the concussed individual to heal faster, quicker, better," Sharma explained. "We don’t look to replace physicians or clinicians. We’re looking to give them tools to augment diagnostic capabilities."
The traditional remedy for a concussion has been to eliminate physical activity and limit sensory stimuli until the brain is healed. New research suggests some physical activity helps recovery.
Playing a video game with a brain injury may seem counterintuitive given sensitivity to light and screens, but Sharma believes games could retrain and thus restore the concussed brain.
"The hope would be, eventually, we would have a game that, depending on symptoms, patients could play and it would help raise their threshold for what they can do on a computer screen before they have symptoms," he said. "Slowly and gradually we’d raise that threshold to bring it back to normal.
"You use games that aren’t as intrusive or games where you have different speeds at which things are moving and things are flashing. What you’re doing is you’re really slowly building up their tolerance where all of a sudden computer screens don’t cause a problem because they’ve been using gaming to get better."
In practical terms, instead of sitting in a dark room between physiotherapy and rehabilitation appointments, Wickenheiser believes the ability to augment and chart recovery doing something fun at home could accelerate return to play or work.
"I’ve had teammates who have had to literally go home and sit in the dark. I was through that once myself for a short time," she said. "One of the things that happens when you have a head injury, you often don’t know how much better you’re getting and there’s a feeling of hopelessness and fear that comes with that.
"If you’re tracking yourself on a day-to-day basis and seeing improvement or know you’re helping yourself improve, I think it also helps with the recovery because the stress level goes down."
The 39-year-old from Shaunavon, Sask., retired as Canada’s all-time leading scorer in January.
The women’s team congregated in Calgary this week to start full-time preparation for the upcoming Winter Olympics. Wickenheiser did that five times in her career en route to four gold.
"I’ll say it’s definitely a little strange for sure because you’re used to the routine," she said. "I’m so busy with other stuff right now, I’m filling the gap."
Wickenheiser will join San Jose Sharks centre Logan Couture and former NHL player Eric Lindros at Western University in London, Ont., on Wednesday to speak at and promote the school’s concussion treatment and awareness program.
She’s fighting the concussion battle on multiple fronts.
"I’m a big believer that academia alone isn’t going to get this done," she said. "I think we need the private sector.
"There’s just so much more we can develop and I think we can make people aware of."