What the NFL and DARPA have in common

Football Head Injury
Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images via PopSci

When we sit down to watch Super Bowl XLVII most of us will be looking at the action on the field, but there are new developments on the sidelines that could change the nature of the game. Cameras capturing the action from various angles, along with physicians and neurosurgeons armed with iPads will be present in the media box to help better spot  and record incidents or unusual behavior that could be predictive of concussion. It's just the start of what could be more sweeping changes aimed at player safety.

National Geographic News reports that according to the NFL's Head, Neck, and Spine Committee in each of the last three seasons more than 200 concussions have been reported - and that doesn't include postseason activity. And those are just the concussions that have been recorded; it's estimated that a player may sustain as many as 1,500 hits to the head in a single season. Plus, if you've been in the game since you were a kid, that number increases exponentially.

It's becoming more and more clear that with each hit, as the brain hits the inside of the skull long term damage could be occurring despite protective helmets. Each hit could lead to brain disease such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), depression and suicide. In fact, after Junior Seau, of the San Diego Chargers, and Dave Duerson, of the Chicago Bears committed suicide, their families allowed their brains to be dissected, and in both cases proof of CTE were found.

So what does DARPA have to do with football injuries? Soldiers in the field sustain dramatics hits as well. Impact from IEDs and other in field activity can kill a soldier immediately, or as in the case of football  football players even those who survive the action of the battlefield many suffer the long term effects of having their brains shaken violently in their skulls - even with helmets.

Helmets are the common denominator. Both the NFL and DARPA have been testing helmet technology to determine how they can be made safer and more predictive of the wearer's health. In fact, the NFL has reached out to the military and DARPA, who have long been studying helmets with sensors that would not only act as early warning devices that a hard hit has taken place but also help provide clues on how to build better ones. Given the common interest of preventing injury and saving lives, not only have they met at a conference to discuss their challenges, they continue to exchange their data.

The Army has already done extensive work on placing thousands of sensors in various soldiers' helmets.  Lt. Col. Frank Lozano, the U.S. Army's product manager for soldier protective equipment was quoted in National Geographic News,

"It comes down to understanding the transfer of energy through a helmet and into the head," Lozano said.

The more a helmet can take on in absorbing the impact of a hit - whether on the football field or the battlefield, the less the brain is at risk. The sensors are critical in providing information about g-forces and where the brain is at most risk from a hit - which doesn't even have to be big to cause serious damage. The Army is relies on a variety of pads suspended in their helmets to help absorb the shock and examines data every year on how they perform best. They are also looking at  new materials for making helmet shells. A kind of thermoplastic is being studied that is said to be stronger than steel but much lighter weight. Such a helmet could very well save lives.
The NFL is also actively getting in the game of studying the helmet technology. Like their Army DARPA counterparts they are planning to study helmets via sensors. In this case,  the sensors are not only in the helmet, but in 12 different locations including the mouthpiece, and center of the head form to measure acceleration and g-forces from impact. The goals are to make sure the sensors are coming up with accurate measurements - and if so, they could potentially become part of ever players' helmet to alert team doctors that a debilitating hit has occurred and intervention is needed.

Changes like on-field monitoriing and better helmets may seem small, but for the NFL the stakes are huge. Seau's family has joined a class action lawsuit filed in June 2012 on behalf of some 2,000 players who are filing suit jointly against the NFL and Riddell the official NFL helmet maker. Their charge is the two groups either hid or dragged their heels on making the science of repetitive brain trauma clear to players.

The result of the lawsuit and negative publicity could cost the defendants millions of dollars. Plus, what has many people talking is how the results could lead to fundamental changes in the game - such as changing the rules to reduce unnecessary roughness and violent tackling. Since this type of contact if vital in both offensive and defensive plays, if equipment changes and safety measures don't reduce the risk of brain injury we could be seeing a dramatically different kind of Super Bowl in years to come.

In the meantime, the surprising bedfellows of NFL and DARPA keep studying helmet technology in order to keep their respective charges safe. As for Super Bowl XLVII, the presence of the cameras and doctors with tablets at the ready to better observe, communicate with and test the players marks a growing recognition of the problem. National Geographic News also reports an NFL announcement may be made around the big game regarding a key partnership on the issue of helmet technology.

Any news on making safety gear "smarter" to protect players is bound to cause discussions - not just for science geeks interested in the technology, but also for sports geeks who are debating the issue of core changes in the way the game is played, so watch this space!

Via National Geographic News, PopSci