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Radical football helmet design may prevent concussions: Stanford study

An innovative new helmet design protects football players from the concussions that can lead to severe brain injuries.

That’s the hope of Stanford University scientists developing a prototype that should reduce the impact of hits to the head by one-third or more.

Their secret? A carbon-fiber football helmet with 21 liquid shock absorbers spread throughout.

“Most of the members of our team have a personal connection to traumatic brain injury and we care deeply about ensuring long-term athlete brain health,” Nicholas Cecchi, a PhD candidate at Stanford and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“Concussion and repeated head impacts are still a major problem in contact sports,” Cecchi added, “and we believe that improved helmet technology can play an important role in reducing the risk of brain injury.”

image of new type of football helmet with liquid-filled cylinders surrounding the head
Stanford University

Professional athletes are at risk of brain injuries from repeated blows to the head. These can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a severe condition that kills nerve cells in the brain.

CTE gets worse over time, according to the Mayo Clinic. The only way to diagnosis CTE is after death, when the brain is autopsied.

Former NFL cornerback Irv Cross, Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos, NFL star Aaron Hernandez and several other athletes were diagnosed with CTE after their deaths.

The condition has also been the subject of lawsuits: Alonzo Adams, father of former NFL defensive back Phillip Adams, is filing a suit against the university where his son played football.

Adams fatally shot six people just over two years ago before committing suicide.

His father claims South Carolina State University failed to adhere to safety protocols and lacked qualified staff members trained to treat his son’s repeated head trauma.

image of traditional football helmet
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And the father of a high school football player who allegedly died of CTE-related injuries filed a suit against football helmet manufacturers, alleging negligent misrepresentation, negligent product liability, fraud and wrongful death.

According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, the greatest number of confirmed CTE cases has been among boxers and football players. It has also been diagnosed among soccer, ice hockey, wrestling, rugby and rodeo participants.

To evaluate their design, the Stanford scientists turned to a “finite-element” modeling program, used by engineers to simulate the performance of a device before it is manufactured.

Their helmet was tested with the high-impact protocols used by the NFL, and its performance was compared to that of four existing helmets.

Importantly, the research team added lower-velocity impacts to the evaluation protocol, because there’s mounting evidence that the cumulative effect of softer impacts that don’t cause concussions can still result in serious brain injury.

image of new football helmet from front and side
Stanford University

They measured each impact to produce a Head Accelerate Response Metric (HARM) score, which is used to evaluate helmet performance under impact.

The results of their testing were unambiguous: The helmet with liquid shock absorbers dramatically reduced impact severity and strain on the brain, producing the lowest HARM score in 33 of 36 impact situations.

The average reduction in HARM score with the new helmet was 33%, and as high as 56% reduction in some situations. The study was published Friday in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

“The liquid technology offered an average improvement of over 30% for both low and high velocities,” said Dr. Yuzhe Liu, corresponding author of the study. “It can dramatically reduce the loading on the brain that is experienced during all kinds of American football impacts.”

“The next step for our team is to translate the computer model to a physical prototype,” said lead study author Cecchi.