A researcher handles a brain lifted from a jar

Sports Technology - American Football

In the first of our regular sports technology features, we look at the technology being developed to protect NFL players from serious head injuries.

When the champions of the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) meet in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on 3'February, it is no exaggeration to say that the eyes of the world will be on them. For the past seven years the annual National Football League (NFL) final has attracted record TV viewing audiences ' last year's encounter between the New York Giants and New England Patriots drew an audience of over 111 million.

But at the heart of the action are the players; modern day gladiators who put everything on the line in the name of sport, including their future welfare. In each NFL encounter there can be expected to occur more than 100 bone-jarring tackles that, according to research, deliver 1,600lb of force. And it's not just game-changing incompletions and fumbles that are caused by these tackles but, over time, serious head injuries.

During each NFL season there are more than 100 concussions logged by teams and this sort of punishment takes its toll. The sport's organiser, the NFL, has continued to tighten regulations with regards to both contact and the monitoring of concussions, but the intensity of the sport continues to put players at risk. There can be no starker illustration of this than the recent spate of suicides among former NFL stars.

Former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, once considered to be one of the elite players in his position, accumulated 1,849 tackles during his illustrious 20-year career. But in May 2012 the 43-year-old took his own life with a gun-shot to the chest. The veteran was suffering from depression and also ' as was confirmed in a report released by the US National Institute of Health (NIH) in January ' from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain syndrome caused by mild, repetitive brain trauma. Anatomically, CTE is characterised by clumps of a protein called tau that build up in the brain cells, damaging and even killing them.

The manner of his suicide was particularly poignant as Seau is reported to have shot himself in the chest in order that his brain could be used for research into the disease and prevent other NFL players suffering.

Long-term brain injury

Similar brain injuries were discovered in the autopsies of other former players who took their own lives: Dave Duerson, a one-time Chicago Bears defensive back who again shot himself in the chest, and also Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back.

In a study of 34 retired NFL players carried out at the University of Texas, about 25 per cent suffered with clinical depression, substantially more than the 15'per cent seen in the general population. "This study gives us new ideas in terms of what is actually going wrong in people's brains when they are developing cognitive or depression symptoms related to concussions," says John Hart Jr, medical science director at the Center for BrainHealth and director of the BrainHealth Institute for Athletes, University of Texas at Dallas.

Brain scans taken of 26 former players detected differences in blood flow to areas of the brain associated with memory and word finding. The scans also showed for the first time a correlation between cognitive impairment and abnormalities in white matter.

"When you shake or move the brain, you can tear or damage the white matter," Hart explains. "It doesn't necessarily always have to be the point of developing symptoms. We need better and more sophisticated ways of identifying things that lead to these symptoms."

The task of protecting the players falls to California-based Riddell, the official supplier of helmets to the NFL. "Riddell is leading the way to develop the most advanced equipment technologies that help elevate player performance at all levels," Dan Arment, president of Riddell, says. "The Riddell 360 combines decades of fine-tuned helmet innovation with the newest developments in protection and comfort designed to meet the demanding needs of today's athletes."

The Riddell 360 uses hinge clips and a flexing facemask to reduce force from frontal impacts and redirect energy away from the head. An enhanced occipital lock cradles the head for the ultimate in comfort, fit and stability. At a time when the rules of the game are evolving and helmet retention is vital to remaining in the game, this feature helps a properly-fit helmet stay on the player's head.

The hexagonal liner system includes a removable, moisture-resistant overliner, keeping the athletes comfortable and ready to play down after down. Riddell is bringing players even closer to the game to demonstrate how protection and preparation translate into game-day performance.

Head-Impact Telemetry

The company's Head-Impact Telemetry System (HITS) and Sideline Response System (SRS) are patented technologies that record the frequency and severity of impacts a player receives during games and practice.

HITS, which is used in conjunction with the SRS, allows for easy and accurate monitoring of on-field head impacts via wireless communication with the sidelines. An MX Encoder provides on-board electronics in the helmet that monitor and record head impacts during on-field play. The systems measure the location, magnitude, duration and direction of head impacts and impact accumulations, and transmit that information wirelessly to the sideline. This provides coaches and medical staff with valuable information ' in real time, if they choose ' that can be used to identify potentially dangerous head impacts.

Another device on the market is Reebok's new Head-Impact Indicator, which was highlighted at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES). "A tiny rechargable pack, about the size of a quarter, sits [against] the base of your skull," explains Matt Hasselbeck, Tennessee Titans quarterback. "If you're hit 'too'hard' ' an impact registering above pre-programmed thresholds based on the head-injury criteria levels ' a yellow or red light goes on.

"The idea behind the synthetic cap is to give coaches, parents, athletes, and even us hard-headed weekend warrior types, a tool to take better care of our brains. It's easy to see why a professional athlete who gets tackled for a living would get behind this kind of technology."

The NFL continues to tackle the problem with funding ' the latest a $30m grant to the NIH, rule changes that limit contact to the head and advocacy programmes, particularly to young players.

However NFL commissioner Roger Goddell is adamant that football remains a safe game. "The studies show that if you play football, and in the NFL, that you actually live a longer life than the average male citizen who didn't play football," he says. "Again, those are averages. You've got to look at that. The reality of it is we have to do everything we can to make our game safer and that is what this is."

Goddell offers his regrets for the recent player deaths, emphasising that these incidents are always taken seriously. "We want answers, but we're not going to wait for all of those answers to make the changes that we think are important, and not just in our game but in all sports and to try to make the equipment safer and do what we can with the rules," he adds.

"Those are changes that we can control now until science catches up and can answer some of those questions. I think there's a lot of science that still needs to be done, because one thing we've determined and been able to work with medical professionals on, there's a lot of unknowns when it comes to brain injuries." 

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