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“[Riddell’s] helmet concept and design is certainly unique,” says Joseph Maroon, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and the team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “But the problem is that there is a lot about concussions and head injury that we don’t fully understand.”

This is a key issue for those researching ways to protect football players. A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training in December 2010 found that brain trauma can be caused not only by hits that leave a player woozy, but also by the accumulation of smaller hits.

“The discussion that is happening now is, which hits do you want to protect against? The huge catastrophic concussions, or the smaller hits that a player takes 50 times a day?” says Chris Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Waltham, Massachusetts, that studies brain injury in athletes. “Frankly, I don’t think people know which way to go at this point,” says Nowinski.

Rick Greenwald, president of Simbex, a research and product development company in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and principal investigator of the NIH studies using the HIT system, says researchers still don’t know how much rotational motion causes a concussion, and therefore don’t know how much they need to reduce it in order to prevent concussions. (Simbex specializes in biomechanical feedback systems and originally developed the HIT technology, which was acquired by Riddell in 2004.)

The need for better protective gear has also inspired some more experimental designs. Michael Princip, an industrial design engineer, recently received attention for his Bulwark helmet, which incorporates layers of padding at variable thickness and density beneath a hard outer shell made of polycarbonate. The inner layers are calibrated to reduce the amount of energy that reaches the inner shell that surrounds the player’s head. The helmet is also segmented so that sections of the helmet can be padded differently depending on a player’s position—quarterbacks, for instance, endure most forces to the back of the head. Princip is currently building a second prototype for testing.

Another design that has been in development for eight years is the Gladiator, built by Brett Straus, an industrial designer at Protective Sports Equipment, a private company in Pennsylvania. The helmet has a soft outer shell made of polyurethane foam over a hard outer shell helmet. It also includes several inside layers designed to manage the energy of hits.

Any effort toward technology innovation should be applauded, says Greenwald. However, he says, all of these designs need to be studied carefully in the lab and on the field, and be evaluated by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

There is growing concern over the way all helmets are tested and rated for safety. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) is asking the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate “misleading safety claims and deceptive practices” in the selling of new football helmets and reconditioned used ones.

Nowinski says brain trauma and concussions are always going to be a problem in helmeted sports. “There is a lot about head injuries that we don’t know and don’t understand,” he says, “and that is going to be true for a very long time.”

Brittany Sauser is a reporter and senior Web producer for Technology Review.

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Credit: Riddell

Tagged: Computing, concussion, head trauma, helmet

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