Saturday, August 16, 2014

New Project: Prototype Helmet that Actually Prevents Concussions

Football helmets are practically useless when it comes to the only thing we really want them to do:  protect our brains.  This may sound like a bold claim, but it is backed by a number of studies, including this one where old-timey leather-head helmets actually outperformed modern football helmets.  Riddell, the official helmet manufacturer for the NFL, recently lost a lawsuit for making the unfounded claim that their "Revolution" helmet (allegedly) reduced concussions by 31%, and Schutt Sports, the other major brand, forces you to click on a disclaimer that states no helmet can reduce the likelihood of concussions before you can even look at any of the content on their website.

There is a lot of speculation about whether this issue will lead to the slow demise of the sport as more and more former NFL players are diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and concussion litigation does more and more damage to the bottom line and youth participation in the sport.

The Science is Young, but We Know Enough to Get Started
One of the biggest problems with CTE is that the science is still relatively young, and we are still trying to figure out what exactly is happening in the brain.  It looks like the primary culprit is a process called Diffuse Axonal Injury (DAI), which is the result of sheer forces inside the brain, typically applied via rotational motion of the head about the base of the skull.

Diffuse axonal injury can occur from sub-concussive impacts, and the effects are cumulative, which means if we are trying to solve the problem of CTE by only looking at "big hits" and concussions, we are focusing our efforts on on flashy but distracting examples.  Here is a great, and very readable summary of our understanding of CTE to date if you would like to learn more.

The Solution:  A New Approach to Headgear
I am not a football player, but I am a lifelong martial artist, and fighters suffer from the same brain damage football players do (CTE was called "dementia pugilistica" up until former NFL players started being diagnosed with the disease via autopsies in the late 2000's).  One important difference between the two sports is that in football, there are too many distracting factors muddying the physics behind the damage, but fighters intentionally try to land a punch that results in loss of consciousness.  A knockout punch is all about the location and direction of the impact rather than "power", and the key is to apply the force as the head rotates about the base of the skull.  This is consistent with a view of diffuse axonal injury as the mechanism behind CTE.

The only way to stop CTE from occurring is to reduce the angular velocity of the head after impact.  None of the football helmets we use today help in this regard, and it is even possible that they make the damage worse.  In order to remedy this, I filed patent application #62/013,040 (well, my amazing and talented patent lawyer did) for headgear that minimizes the angular velocity of the head after an impact.

Next Steps: Build a Prototype
I can tell you how awesome this invention is a hundred different ways, but really, the best way to tell you is to build a prototype and test it and give it to experts in the field to independently test and evaluate.  Fortunately, the headgear is pretty low-tech and easy to build, so I can get to work right away.  Of course, it would be much better with a little funding or the backing of a major brand, and my prototype is probably not going to look very sexy, but I don't care.  I just need to make something I can use to prove the concept.
This is only about 20% done, so don't decide you love/hate it yet.