Measuring the Forces of Blows or Blasts to the Head
The NFL and the military are currenty testing how better to detect and understand concussions through various mechanisms like sensors in helmets, mouthpieces, and earpieces.
So a couple of important things: I don't think the sidelines exam, as it exists today, is the be all and end all. Let me tell you that we're going to evolve this. In fact, at the end of the football season we're going to convene all the doctors and analyze whether it was effective or not, and if it wasn't, how can we make it better? If it was, can we even make it better than that? So this is certainly an evolving field, and that's going to happen. Military feels the same way. They want to detect it earlier treat it more aggressively, and return these soldiers either back to civilian life or back to battle healthier. So, I think there is so much yet to do. Now, let's talk about what the NFL is doing to help understand this. Right now there is testing going on with sensors in the helmet, sensors in the mouth, and sensors in the ears, so there are 3 components. Let's talk about sensors. One of the things that the NFL is actively researching right now is how to better detect and understand concussions. So there are 3 sensor stystems called accelerometers that can tell how much force has struck the skull. The first one is called the HIT System, which is a helmet sensor embedded in the helmet that then sends a signal to the sidelines and says how much impact. Those are tested against mouthpiece accelerometers. They're embedded in the mouthpiece that many football players wear and can do the same thing. How much force has been used to strike this player? And then, right now, the race car drivers use ear piece accelerometers. They put an earpiece in their ear, and it detects how much force, how much acceleration the car is forcing upon the person driving the car. We're testing them against each other. We want to know in the NFL, which of these sensors is most accurate to pick up the forces that are causing concussion? Number two, which forces are causing concussion? And so we're testing to see which one would be the best one to use in a football field, and then pilot that. Is that going to happen this season? Are we going to have something to put in the helmets or in the mouthpieces or in the ear? No, but the testing is going on independently by academics and engineers at independent laboratories, and I think we're going to be closer to the answer. Military--same thing--they're trying to come up with better helmets that can absorb the blast and not transfer it into the skull and brain. Military has a huge project being undertaken by MIT, by Professor John Joannopoulos at MIT, who is one of the leading thinkers on this issue of blast injuries. He's a physicist and trying to find new materials or a new construction of a helmet that can absorb the energy. When we had a meeting of all the greatest minds in helmet technology and physics and engineering and mathematics in New York last year-- John Joannopoulos and the team from MIT, the team from Virginia Tech-- all the leading thinkers on this subject and engineers are constructing things there to ask the question, while helmets won't eliminate traumatic brain injury, can we make a better one to lessen the effects and maybe one that will eliminate some of them? So I think this is very exciting. People are thinking about this, putting all their energy into it, and there's a lot of moving pieces--lot of research going on-- all the time on this subject.
Posted on BrainLine October 23, 2012.
Produced by Vicky Youcha, Ashley Gilleland, Justin Rhodes, and Erica Queen, BrainLine.
Richard Ellenbogen, MD is a University of Washington professor and chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery. He is chief and attending of neurological surgery, Harborview Medical Center and the co-chair of the NFL's Head, Neck, and Spine Committee.