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Reinventing The Football Helmet: Is Improving The Technology The Answer?


Football is getting harder to watch even for some of the sport's most passionate fans. Research has shown again and again that the hits those players take can have a lasting impact on the players' brains. The NFL announced this past week that it will spend $100 million to advance concussion research. Some of that money will go into continuing efforts to develop a safer helmet. Doctors say so far, helmets have done little to reduce concussions and the long-term effects of repeated head trauma.

Joining us now to talk about this is Dr. David Camarillo. He's assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford and he leads a lab dedicated to inventing equipment that reduces traumatic brain injury in sports. Welcome to the program.

DAVID CAMARILLO: Thanks, glad to be here.

MARTIN: So just big question right off the top - can more money help create a helmet that will prevent traumatic brain injury in football? Is it even possible?

CAMARILLO: Well, I think you can certainly reduce some of the traumatic brain injuries that do occur. And it's not just the concussions. They're repetitive sub-concussive blows that some people think might be, you know, contributing to some of the long-term problems. And I think there's even a better opportunity there of reducing the severity of some of those impacts.

MARTIN: Can you tell me - what are the helmets like now? What are players using right now, and why are they insufficient?

CAMARILLO: Well, what they're using today is not significantly different than what players were using in the late '70s. The newer helmets at that point in time started incorporating foam as an energy-absorbing material whereas beforehand they had used suspension-type helmets, the same type of helmet you might use on a job construction site, like a hard hat. And the foams that are in use today have probably been tuned and optimized a little bit over the last 30, 40 years but you know, the basic concept and framework has remained the same.

MARTIN: There's a company in Seattle funded in part by the University of Washington, VICIS. They've got a helmet out they claim can reduce impact forces better than any other helmet on the market. That's what they say. They've also gotten funding from the NFL. What do you make of this helmet?

CAMARILLO: Well, that claim very well may be true. However, I should say I haven't seen the data myself. And I certainly hope in the overall effort to advance research that they will publish and reveal more details about their helmet and the results. The thing that I like about what they're doing is they're not just simply using foams to absorb the energy. Is it possible that there might be other solutions out there that might even be better? Yeah. But I think it is a step in the right direction.

MARTIN: What are the other things out there that could be better? I mean, you only have so many options, right? You're still putting this thing on your head and you're trying to minimize the impact. So it doesn't just mean filling up that space in the helmet with something that's going to protect it.

CAMARILLO: That's true. But the manner in which you absorb the energy, I think, matters. And this comes back to really one of the research challenges in the field, is that if you want to evaluate if a helmet's going to protect against concussion you need to understand the details of what causes a concussion. And that's something that's been missing and a tough nut to crack.

MARTIN: So you're saying we still don't really know exactly what causes a concussion?

CAMARILLO: That's exactly what I'm saying. And in fact, in this NFL funding that they've announced I think they've dedicated about $60 million towards helmets, and they lump under that same umbrella sensors. And I think their hope is that the sensors part of the research will start to uncover more details about what causes the concussion. It's more complex than you might think. And that provides a means to design and test helmets against.

MARTIN: What are you working on in your labs?

CAMARILLO: We've found that the best approach is not so much the most obvious thing, which is to put sensors on a helmet. The helmet, if it's doing its job, moves significantly with respect to the head. So we've been targeting one of the hardest substances in the body - your teeth. So we put sensors in a mouth guard that essentially snaps into the player's mouth and gets quite precise measurement of the head's motion. And then we can start to infer what's happening inside the brain.

MARTIN: There are critics out there, informed critics, who say you can build the best helmet in the world and the only thing that's really going to change the scale of all these injuries in football is to change the game of football.

CAMARILLO: Yeah, I think it's probably going to need to be a little bit of both. I think if you have a combined and holistic approach where, you know, modifications in rules and technique along with improvements of technology, there's significant opportunity. And I should say that it's going to be most challenging for the NFL because they're the biggest and the strongest, but they're a very small fraction of the 4 million football players in the country. Most of them are at the peewee and the junior high and high school level. And the forces - energies involved there might be a little more manageable.

MARTIN: Dr. David Camarillo. He's assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford. Thanks so much for talking with us.

CAMARILLO: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.