Head Games

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The Purdue Neurotrauma Group could help revolutionize football through safer helmet technology.

Helmet Illustration

By William Meiners

To play or not to play? As the boys of summer begin to give way to the fall football weekends, more parents are questioning whether their sons should even be allowed to play on the gridiron. High profile suicides, like that of Junior Seau, the former NFL linebacker, have shined a shocking light on the potential long-term tragic effects of head trauma suffered between the sidelines.

A trio of Purdue researchers, however, is leading a team that could offer a critical solution to the safety of the game. Their charge: to make football safer by lessening the impact of blows to the head. Larry Leverenz, Eric Nauman, and Tom Talavage are the principal investigators from the Purdue Neurotrauma Group (PNG). After putting themselves squarely into the middle of football practices to measure neurological responses to collisions, the group now has a football helmet patent in the works that could reduce the G-force of hits by as much as 50 percent. That reduction in force could protect the brain from rattling around inside a skull after the various “bell-ringing” and “jacked-up” shots that you may or may not see on the highlight shows.

“We want to reduce the energy that’s transmitted to the head,” says Nauman, a professor with appointments in both biomedical and mechanical engineering.

Nauman hopes to have some prototypes of the helmets developed this fall. From patent to prototype to commercialization, a new football helmet — effectively a product redesign that has seen little alteration over the past 30 years — could be strapped on by footballers of all ages. That very helmet, along with a continued emphasis on proper tackling techniques and rules that discourage head-first contact, could be just what the doctors have ordered.

Concussion collaborative

The secret to PNG’s collaborative success may be related to the varied backgrounds of the researchers. Talavage, professor of electrical and computer engineering, says a colleague from General Electric was interested in exploring sports injuries through a new imaging center. In 2009, Talavage reached out to Nauman, already immersed in the biomechanics of protective helmets, and Leverenz, clinical professor of health and kinesiology. A grant from the Indiana Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Fund, part of Indiana’s Department of Health, helped to get the project up and running.

Aside from linguistic challenges of learning the verbiage of each other’s fields, all three report the collaboration to be nearly seamless from the start. “Tom and I tend to overlap just enough on the math,” Nauman says. “And we have extensive biology backgrounds that allow us to communicate with Larry.”

For his part, Leverenz brings both a clinical component and experience as an athletic trainer to the table. “I’ve worked on college football sidelines for a number of years,” he says. “I know the environment and the mentality of the players and coaches.”

Helmet Scans
Brain scans show differences among high school football players in a two-year study that suggests concussions are likely caused by many hits over time and not from a single blow to the head, as commonly believed. Photo credit: Thomas Talavage.

The researchers entered that tough-minded, hard-hitting environment with the latest in sensor equipment four falls ago. What followed was a two-year study of football players at Lafayette Jefferson High School. Twenty-one players participated in the first season, and 24, including 16 repeaters, took part in the second season. To measure the players’ response, helmet-sensor impact data from each player were compared with brain-imaging scans and cognitive tests performed before, during, and after each season.

They evaluated players using a type of brain imaging technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, along with a computer-based neurocognitive screening test. The fMRI scans reveal which parts of the brain are most active during specific tasks.

“The most important implication of the new findings is the suggestion that a concussion is not just the result of a single blow, but it’s really the totality of blows that took place over the season,” Nauman said at the time. “The one hit that brought on the concussion is arguably the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Perhaps not so very surprising, Talavage says, as repeated blows to the head cannot be good for anyone. He compares it to the lifelong runner who may experience a degeneration of joints in his later years. Nevertheless, the football diagnosis wasn’t something that was generally accepted by the medical community.

“We discovered that players who were taking a lot of hits but would not normally ever be examined by a clinician were providing evidence of changes in their brain physiology,” Talavage says. “These kids actually ended up looking worse from a brain function perspective than did a number of kids who received actual diagnosed concussions.”

The research, which has a way of building upon itself, has transitioned from somewhat interdisciplinary work to multidisciplinary work. Nauman says that’s evident in his interactions with student researchers who are even quicker to adapt to the collaborations. Beginning their fifth year with Jeff football, PNG is now in its second year with girls’ soccer at the same school. Forthcoming are studies with Purdue freshmen football players and members of the women’s soccer team.

Primetime coverage

In recent years, football concussions have become somewhat of a lightning rod for NFL officials, who are perhaps reluctantly tasked with trying to minimize the violence of a rough game. In 2012, more than 2,000 former NFL players filed a lawsuit against the league for concealing information that relates football injuries to long-term brain damage. The documented tragedies of Seau and Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety whose own suicide was linked to the chronic brain damage known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, put the NFL further into a public relations quandary.

A Sports Illustrated cover story in November 2010 highlighted the PNG findings. A year later, HBO’s Real Sports documented the same study, and Nauman and Talavage estimated how many hits might be too many hits for a player in a single season, resulting in irreversible brain damage. Regional coverage from the Indianapolis Star throughout various radio programs, news shows, and other media outlets helped to further spread the word.

Though the coverage hasn’t led to a windfall of research dollars, it has given the study a pretty good set of legs. “The nice thing about all the positive press is that it brings a lot of attention to our efforts,” Nauman says. “A lot of people are coming to find us, and it let us know that we’re right there with the big dogs.”

Leverenz concurs. “It has certainly heightened the interest in this community,” he says. “When I tell people I’m working with the group that’s studying football concussions at Lafayette Jeff, they know what’s going on and are aware of what’s happening. That awareness has really helped.”

The possibilities of the research continue to pay dividends. Earlier this year, Leverenz was named to the Medical Advisory Board of the GE/NFL Head Health Initiative, a $60 million research initiative to develop new technologies for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of head injuries. “The initiative is broken down into two sections,” Leverenz explains, “with $20 million going to general research. The other $40 million is being used to develop new imaging technologies with GE and study groups throughout the country.”

Talavage says the developing sensor technology will help them even more accurately to spell out the results of the study. “We used a helmet-based telemetry, an electronic system that measures the magnitude, direction, and number of hits. That enabled us to show that players who took fewer than 60 hits per week recovered better than players who took more than 90 hits per week,” he says. “A new sensor could help us come up with even more accurate numbers on what those hits mean.”

Optimal outcomes

The ferocity of football is hardly new, certainly with undocumented head wounds dating back to the days of leather helmets. Leverenz has stood on enough Saturday sidelines to know that players often would, perhaps even more than figuratively, “run through a wall” for a coach or love of the game.

“We’re just becoming more aware of the side effects,” Leverenz says. “College and the NFL have medical staffs. High schools, within the last five to 10 years, are getting more medical staff on the sidelines. But there’s virtually no medical care on the field when you get down to the lower levels.”

Leverenz believes concerned parents can help ensure the safety of their kids’ football games. Ask coaches about their philosophy on hit drills. How are they incorporating safety into practices and games? What methods are coming out of the tackle lines? “There’s enough evidence out there to support rule changes and proper tackling techniques,” he says. “And we now know that we want to help kids avoid the sub-concussive injuries as well as the concussive injuries.”

Talavage believes the sensor technology can even be used to help in the officiating of football. If you can accurately identify that a player is spearing, for example, an automated call could supplant a referee’s judgment call. This could lead to improved practice techniques and the encouragement of players to participate safely.

His own sons play baseball and soccer, but Talavage says he would let them play football if they expressed an interest and the coaches were teaching the proper techniques to eliminate head contact. “And especially if we get them into one of Eric’s helmets,” he adds.

Nauman is more reticent. “Not right now,” he says about his son putting on a helmet and cleats. “Not until we get better equipment out there.”

But he’s optimistic. “I think we have just barely scratched the surface on what we can do to make football safer,” Nauman says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that you can play these sports in a safe way. From better equipment to considerable rule changes, as well as better coaching and better techniques. To do all of those things you need to have better technology.”

And that’s what PNG is pushing — a technology-inspired revolution of football. Although Nauman would maintain that his multidisciplinary group would like to take that safety technology beyond the fields of play. The development of protective gear for people working on the frontlines as soldiers and emergency first responders is another priority.

For now, though, throughout these autumn weekends, thousands of headstrong football players — from peewee linebackers to Big Ten down linemen to Super Bowl superstars — will squat nose to nose in the trenches, intent on delivering a slobber knocker to the player across from them. Millions more will cheer them on. Here’s hoping they keep their heads and wits about them.

William Meiners is editor-in-chief of Sport Literate, a Chicago-based literary magazine. He lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.