In last year's NFL season, there were 202 diagnosed concussions. Julian Edelman, a receiver for the New England Patriots, sustained one of the most talked about helmet-to-helmet hits during the Super Bowl, when he continued to play without a medical check after Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor slammed him. The incident prompted a new concussion protocol, referred to as Resolution G-2, or the “Julian Edelman Rule,” which allows spotters in the press box to contact officials on the field and call a medical timeout in cases of potential concussions. Until now, only sideline refs, who have limited field of vision, were able to stop play.
Other efforts have called attention to the issue. A class-action lawsuit passed this spring gave settlements of up to $5 million to former NFL players who suffer from serious medical conditions related to repeated head injuries. There’s even a Will Smith movie, aptly named Concussion, coming out this December about Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease found in athletes with repeated brain trauma, when performing an autopsy on Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002.
Aside from NFL policies and politics, brain injuries are tough to identify and remedy. The signs can be slow to show, and brains respond differently to impact. Concussions happen in everything from combat to youth soccer, so the NFL, the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health are all funding studies about brain injuries.
Can wearable technology register the strength of a hit on a player? Could a pill one day mitigate the effects of a concussion? Researchers are actively pursuing new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat head injuries.
Blood Tests for Brain Injuries
Until recently, it was thought to be impossible to diagnose head injuries through blood tests. But recent research from two privately held companies—Banyan Biomarkers and Quanterix—has shown that head injuries can cause biomarkers to break through the blood-brain barrier, or the tightly-knit endothelial cells in the brain's blood vessels built to prevent cell transfer and protect the brain. They’ve found two proteins that show up at higher than normal levels in the blood stream after head injuries. Now, they’re working on figuring out exactly what level indicates trauma. The companies say they could have a test available within six months.
Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a film that changes color when it’s hit. It’s made of polymers that link together to form crystals that refract light. The structure of the crystals morphs on impact, causing the color change. The film starts out red. After a force of 30 millinewtons, it turns green, and after a slam of 90 millinewtons, it turns purple. It stays that way permanently to record the force. The idea is to give an easy indicator for when an athlete or soldier has been pounded hard enough to necessitate medical care. The researchers, whose work has been funded by the military, say it could be incorporated into helmets within a few years.
Accelerometers in Mouthguards and Patches
When he was playing rugby at Arizona State University, Anthony Gonzales was hit hard enough that he couldn’t remember which team he was playing for. His head injury inspired him to find a way to better diagnose concussions. He developed a mouthguard, the FITGuard, which has a built-in accelerometer. It lights up when the wearer is hit hard enough to sustain a concussion, and then, based on the user’s age and medical history, indicates the chance of concussion through app-based software. Gonzales, who is now an MBA student at ASU, has the guards available for pre-order and says they’ll be out early next year.
Seattle-based tech company, X2 Biosystems, has developed a similar sensor, the xPatch, which athletes stick behind their ear. When a player is hit, it wirelessly sends data about force and angles to the coach’s iPad. The Stanford women’s lacrosse team is using it, as are rugby teams in the UK. Both devices are meant to be used as indicators, not in lieu of doctors' visits. With up to 50 percent of concussed athletes not reporting their injuries, these wearables are a first step in getting them treatment.
Researchers at Harvard are working on a treatment to slow the spread of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease common in people who have had frequent head injuries. Patients with CTE have high levels of misshapen tau, a naturally occurring protein, in their brains. The scientists are not sure how brain injuries change the structure of the tau, but they’ve developed an antibody, which can be ingested in pill form, that binds to the mangled tau and provokes the body to destroy it. The pill is still a few years away, but it could be a boon for people with CTE and other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's, that present similar protein tangles.
A Big Dummy
On the prevention side, Dartmouth's football squad has a new teammate—a mobile, self-righting tackling dummy that moves around the field like a real player. The remote-controlled dummy was developed as a senior project at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. Called the MVP, or Mobile Virtual Player, it allows players to practice good tackling form without actual player-to-player contact, which is more likely to lead to concussions.
Dartmouth was already on the forefront of concussion prevention. For the past five years, Coach Buddy Teevens has had a no tackling in practice policy. Other coaches argue it limits skill development, but Teevens says it is huge for preventing injuries. “The only time my guys tackle is 10 times a year in games,” he says in a video produced by Mashable. This gives the athletes a chance to practice without hurting themselves before they take the field on game day.