Football helmet sensors measure concussions

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

There is no better place on campus to study concussions than the football field, said Professor of Orthopaedics Joseph Crisco.

This fall, 63 members of the football team are using helmets fitted with sensors that measure the impact of collisions in order to help researchers across the country learn more about concussions.

The new equipment was introduced this season as part of a five-year, $3.6-million Bioengineering Research Partnership awarded by the National Institute of Health to Simbex, a research and product development company.

The system uses electronic sensors called accelerometers to calculate how fast the head is moving at the point of impact. “(They are) basically the sensors that set off the airbags in your car during a collision,” Crisco said.

In addition to head acceleration, the sensors measure the location and direction of a collision – factors Crisco said can also contribute to concussions. After an on-field collision, this data is transmitted to a computer server, where it is graphed with Head Impact Telemetry software. Athletic trainers and medical technicians can then use this information to determine the likelihood that a player sustained a concussion.

Currently, the study is in the data collection phase, but its aim over the next five years is to allow researchers to better understand when a player is at-risk for a concussion by building up a wealth of data about on-field impacts.

“For the first time we are able to measure head acceleration on the field in real-time,” said Crisco, who invented the mathematical algorithm used by the accelerometers to compute head acceleration. According to Crisco, little research exists concerning concussions, and he hopes this study will provide conclusive evidence about how and why they occur.

The system is being used in conjunction with the NIH grant by the football teams at Brown, Dartmouth College and Virginia Tech University. Since the study is still in its early stages, trainers and coaches using the system must use their own judgment about how best to use the information in helping players, said Head Athletic Trainer Russ Fiore.

“It’s not going to diagnose a concussion,” Fiore said of the system.

Currently, Brown athletes with suspected concussions are evaluated based on a standardized procedure that includes a series of memory and reasoning tests. “We have a complete concussion protocol that we follow rigidly,” Fiore said.

Nevertheless, Fiore said the athletic training staff is using the new system to identify when a player has taken a potentially dangerous hit, which in turn helps to ensure that players avoid subsequent head injuries.

Fiore said the system’s graphs provide useful information to which he can refer if a player approaches him with possible symptoms of a concussion. In the case of linebacker Eric Brewer ’08, the system allowed the training staff to analyze the possible causes of his concussion.

Brewer, who suffered his first career concussion a few weeks ago and did not play against the University of Rhode Island last month, said he couldn’t tell he had been concussed when it occurred, but he felt the effects when he awoke the following morning.

“I was really dizzy and felt like I was in a haze,” he said. “I waited a couple of days, thinking maybe I was just dehydrated. I didn’t say anything to the trainers.” However, when his symptoms did not dissipate, Brewer sought help from Fiore.

“I was able to go back and see how hard he got hit in the game,” Fiore said. The graphs showed that the concussion was most likely a cumulative result of several moderately hard hits, since no single hit stood out as dangerously hard. However, it is hard to determine how to treat each player because thresholds of head acceleration are likely to vary across individuals, Fiore said.

Brewer said that for a “vague injury” like a concussion, the system is very useful. “It’s another way of narrowing things down,” he said. “If you do take a really hard hit, it makes it that much more obvious that you really do have a concussion.”

Crisco said the system “provides an extra set of eyes for the trainer,” which is particularly important given the tendency of many players to ignore their symptoms or try to avoid being detected in an effort to stay in the game.

Fiore agreed, saying, “I feel like I’m making it safer for our athletes.” In the future, the helmet sensor technology could be utilized in other high contact sports as well, with men’s and women’s ice hockey as likely recipients.

Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger said Brown’s participation in this type of research study has important benefits for the University. “To me, it’s a great opportunity for us to play a role in the long-range health and safety of athletes,” he said. “We are a research institution. Oftentimes, people look at athletics as outside of the mainstream of what this university is all about, and this is an example where we can be right in the middle of it.”

Currently, Riddell markets a helmet called Revolution IQ that features accelerometer technology. Each helmet costs $999. Still, Brewer thinks the helmets are worth their cost.

“You can’t really put a price tag on using your brain for the rest of your life,” he said.