Jandy Le reports on what could be the new standard for sports headgear.

Graphics credits: Amy Wang

American football is a billion-dollar industry and favorite pastime for millions. But thousands of football players are injured annually, especially in the head. These injuries range from mild cases that cause brief cognitive problems to more severe ones that result in unconsciousness and coma. Regardless of the severity, all brain injuries can leave long-term effects on the patient, who could suffer from symptoms lasting years or more.

Traditionally, football players have confronted injury using the football helmet, which has slowly progressed since the 1890s into a potent tool for preventing fracture-level trauma. Unfortunately, the risk of concussion remains very high. Moreover, in part due to the large, diverse population that plays the sport, public health campaigns concerning traumatic brain injuries remain underdeveloped.

To tackle this dilemma, UC Berkeley neuroscientist Dr. Robert Knight has founded BrainGuard. The startup draws on a team of brain function and injury specialists from UC Berkeley and UCSF, as well as Dr. Knight’s own decade of experience running a neurological trauma institute; as a result, it has produced a game-changing helmet design that may effectively eliminate current brain injury patterns in football and other sports. Here we examine Dr. Knight’s helmet in depth.

To understand Dr. Knight’s revolutionary design, we must first understand the anatomical process of head injury. After a direct strike to the head, the brain, suspended in a layer of spinal fluid, bumps against the inside of the skull. Contrary to expectations, it’s not actually the brain that absorbs the impact, but the spinal fluid: the liquid moves back and forth, and thus, moves the brain along with it. Nevertheless, this motion results in cellular injury because it rips and kills the parts of neurons that conduct impulses to other cells — axons. Axon death alters the chemical balance of ions and chemicals within the brain, hinders molecular transport, and releases toxins that affect even healthy nerves; more severe cases also cause nerve fibers to permanently lose their functional ability. Recovery requires large amounts of energy — an impossible amount to generate because too many nerve cells are damaged — and oxygen, which can’t be delivered because of diminished blood flow. This is the reason behind the well-known symptoms of a concussion, such as loss of consciousness, dizziness, nausea, and headaches.

Dr. Knight claims that ordinary football helmets only prevent the skull from cracking, not the shock that happens inside, and that when the victim’s head is struck, it’s the bony protrusions at the front of the skull that cause the most damage. Consequently, his design consists of two layers. An outer layer comes into contact with the source of impact and is connected to the inner layer with struts. The inner shell is attached to the athlete and isn’t affected by the outside force.

Dr. Knight also accounts for the physics of rotation: upon impact, the head actually twists and turns instead of simply shaking side to side. Thus, he designed his helmet to twist upon collision, absorbing the strike’s rotational energy through the struts. Perhaps most importantly, the BrainGuard design uses a “composite foam liner to reduce vibration and absorb energy” and customizes the denseness of this inner liner based on the position that the athletes play.

The self-funded team uses high-tech dummies to conduct tests, which include simulated collisions, sensors gauging impact against various surfaces, and drops from a myriad of heights and angles. Their products, thus tested, have enjoyed good reception: this year, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment and Biokinetics Inc. will begin testing BrainGuard’s products with the intent for the helmets to be approved for professional games. Still, BrainGuard has been already been awarded 19 patents and is on the lookout for more. The team has also created several prototypes for hockey, biking, and baseball helmets, and is currently collaborating with campus athletics departments and sports medicine experts to revamp the design according to specific sports activity and year.

The incorporation of neuroscience into the sports world has cleared the path to the solution of traumatic brain injuries: helmet manufacturers like Brainguard are now creating effective protective measures to greatly reduce the risk of concussions and other forms of catastrophic head trauma. With such momentous progress, the millions of Americans playing football will soon play far more confidently with far less concern for injuries.

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Jandy Le studies molecular biology and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

We write on psychology, ethics, neuroscience, and the newest in neural engineering. @UC Berkeley