organizations are backing projects to prevent and diagnose sports-related concussions
Telling athletes to just “walk it off” is no longer acceptable. With evidence of the long-term effects of sports-related concussions mounting, organizations are addressing the issue head-on and sponsoring projects to develop devices that aim to either reduce the threat of head injuries or diagnose them.
A well-known problem in American football, concussions are also the most common injury in English professional rugby. And a variety of sports and recreational activities contribute to the 3.8 million concussions sustained in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Traditional helmets can only do so much. “Since antiquity, the only efforts ever made to protect the human brain have been to put something on the head,” says Julian Bailes, MD, chairman of the department of neurosurgery and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute, NorthShore University HealthSystem, Evanston, Illinois, USA.
With a concussion, however, the problem isn't really that the outside of the head gets hit. It's that the brain strikes the inside of the skull due to sudden deceleration or acceleration, which can stretch or tear brain fibers.
So Dr. Bailes and his project team came up with a new solution—by drawing inspiration from the animal kingdom. “Certain creatures in nature, such as woodpeckers, hit their heads repetitively without suffering brain injury,” Dr. Bailes says. How? A woodpecker's brain fills the space of its skull, whereas a human brain floats in the skull like an egg yolk in a shell. The bird also compresses its neck veins while ramming its head, increasing the volume of blood between the brain and skull. The fluid acts as a protective layer.
So Dr. Bailes and his team devised a neck collar that can similarly protect people. The collar partially blocks the jugular vein, restricting a small amount of blood flowing from the brain to the body. The backed-up blood reduces the brain's movement when suddenly struck.
When testing the collar among laboratory animals, the project team found an 83 percent reduction in markers of concussion. The team then tested the band with a few hundred athletes to fine-tune its fit and flag any adverse effects, such as impinging athletes’ ability to get their heart rates up. The six-year project will conclude later this year when the team publishes its findings, Dr. Bailes says, which will show the collar provides protection to highschool U.S. football players’ brains.
Other concussion-prevention projects aren't giving up on helmets just yet. VICIS, an organization based in Seattle, Washington, USA, has developed a flexible helmet, the Zero1, which aims to reduce the incidence of concussions. The project is funded in part with US$500,000 from the Head Health Challenge, a US$60 million program sponsored by the National Football League (NFL), Under Armour and General Electric to improve head health in U.S. football.
The VICIS project leveraged lessons learned by the automotive industry, which uses plastic bumpers and crumple zones.
The VICIS project leveraged lessons learned by the automotive industry, which uses plastic bumpers and crumple zones to protect drivers and passengers. “Instead of trying to slow a car down over many feet or yards, we're trying to slow these impacts down over 2.5 inches,” VICIS co-founder and chief medical officer Samuel R. Browd, MD, PhD, told Wired.
The multilayered Zero1 helmet features hundreds of flexible columns that work like shock absorbers. Within milliseconds of a collision, they bend and then snap back into place. After testing the helmet through drop tests and rotational tests, the VICIS team found it reduces the force of impact by 20 to 50 percent.
The Zero1 flexible helmet
Other project teams hope to help coaches better diagnose concussions and follow up appropriately. “There's a critical need for the development of tools to help manage concussions in young athletes,” says Lara McKenzie, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, USA.
In 2014, Dr. McKenzie and her team began a twoyear project to study the effectiveness of the Spot Light app. It helps doctors, coaches and parents of young U.S. football players assess concussions and track athletes’ progress from the moment of injury to when they're allowed back in a game. Funded through a US$30 million grant from the NFL to the National Institutes of Health, the Nationwide team is studying whether app use among middle-school and high-school teams results in more concussions being identified and better compliance with return-to-play guidelines. A big project challenge has been ensuring that app users correctly and consistently enter data.
“We needed to make sure the data are there so we can analyze them,” Dr. McKenzie says.
The deeper challenge facing concussion-diagnosis projects is that up to 50 percent of athletes don't report brain injury symptoms. To find an objective measure of brain injury, a team at University College London, London, England is studying players at a London rugby club to find chemicals associated with brain injury that could be used to develop a blood test. That way, officials won't have to rely on what athletes tell them—blood samples will provide a definitive answer. —Novid Parsi
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