Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Concussions and New Technology

I've been writing about concussions in sports for several years now, particularly interested in the subject because Eli 16.1 is a goalie.

There are only two ways to reduce concussions in any meaningful way. First, redesign the helmet so that it has a softer external layer that can absorb some of the impact, instead of the brain absorbing all the force. Second, have some kind of microprocessor-controlled cuff around the neck that inflates as needed, significantly increasing the blood pressure around the brain for a split second. That would protect the brain from slamming into the skull.

Neither of these approaches would be concussion-proof, but even a 20-30% reduction in concussions would be a huge improvement.

There are problems with both of these conceptual improvements. If you make the helmet softer, it also becomes "stickier" and possibly more subject to rotation when contacting other helmets. That can be very dangerous.

Plus, here's a stupid-ass non-problem, which is that teams didn't want flexible helmets because the softer surface was more difficult to paint. Seriously.

The cuff, in my mind, is the best idea, by far. But the level of technology required to collect the information, make the decision, and inflate the cuff in time is incredibly daunting.

Now, though, both of those approaches are being tried.

First, there's a new helmet called the "Zero1", and it's a flexible helmet. It's a complex approach, with multiple levels of new technology being incorporated, but it looks promising. Here's a good explanation: The Zero1 Flexible Helmet May Save Players' Brains. The helmet is supposedly being submitted for testing by Virginia Tech, which is currently the gold standard in testing (low bar) for football helmets.

Bauer is working with the second technology--the cuff--but I'm much more skeptical of what they're doing, because it looks very simplistic. It provides a uniform, slight increase in blood pressure in the brain, but they have absolutely no experimental data to measure how much more force can be absorbed by using the product. So it looks more like a cash-in than a real, useful product.

However, it's interesting that someone is trying to commercialize the concept, because if someone is willing to try it, then someone else is probably willing to improve it.

The effectiveness of these technologies could have a huge impact on the popularity of high-contact sports, particularly football, in the future.

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