will football helmets someday be equipped with flashing lights

Now that school is back in session, many high school students here in Pennsylvania and across the country will head directly to the locker room after the final bell rings to gear up for sports practice. Many will don shoulder pads, arm pads, knee pads and, of course, helmets. Interestingly, these helmets may someday be outfitted with a new safety feature designed to detect the serious brain injuries that can sometimes occur on the playing field.

Why is this important? Consider how vital it is to accurately diagnose the true nature and extent of a head injury. The difference in outcomes between cases in which patients have received an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment, and those in which they’ve simply been told, in effect, to take two aspirin and call their doctor in the morning can be dramatic. In fact, physicians routinely misdiagnose the many different symptoms of a traumatic brain injury — dizziness, blurred vision, loss of balance, etc. — as symptoms of other, less serious conditions. This can lead to devastating, even fatal consequences for patients.

In conjunction with better training and accountability for physicians, additional safety features can help address this serious situation. Here, the safety feature in question is not an extra strap or additional padding, but rather a small sensor mounted to the back of the helmet called the Brain Sentry.

The technology utilizes a new form of accelerometer technology designed to sense significant acceleration of the head (i.e., a big hit). In the event of such a hit, the sensor flashes a red light every three seconds, indicating a 25 percent chance of a concussion. This, in turn, allows the coaching staff to pull the player out of practice or the game, and undergo the requisite medical testing. In the event the player is uninjured, the sensor can be reset.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the Brain Sentry is that it has a memory chip that is able to monitor subsequent impacts and the amount of time between them. Accordingly, if a player suffers a second big hit within 30 days, the red light will flash twice every three seconds.

This is significant because young people are so susceptible to suffering devastating brain trauma caused by successive head blows.

“Youth players have developing brains, so they can suffer secondary impact syndrome — massive brain damage or even death when receiving a second hit while playing with a concussion,” said Greg Merril, the founder and CEO of Brain Sentry, LLP. “Parents are taking kids out of sports because of their fear of brain injuries. We want to keep kids in sports for all of the benefits that they provide.”

The Brian Sentry is also cheap ($50), water proof, needs no battery, and does not need to be turned on. In addition, at the end of the season it can simply be peeled off and sent back to the manufacturer for recycling. In fact, it’s highly likely that the sensor will soon be available for the helmets of other impact sports, including lacrosse and ice hockey.

While this technology is certainly intriguing, it’s important to distinguish it from other concussion-related technology currently in development. Namely, those designed to actually to diagnose head injuries.

For instance, last month we reported on how researchers at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology were using a field of study known as atomic magnetometry to create small magnetometers designed to monitor the magnetic field of the brain.

The idea here is that hundreds of the magnetometers would line the inside of specially designed headgear and measure the brain waves of athletes leaving the field, court, ring or rink.

To illustrate, if a football player took a particularly violent hit during practice, he could submit to a neural examination with the headgear. If the magnetometers did indeed detect a small change in brain waves, the player would then know to seek immediate treatment and stay off the field for the foreseeable future.

It should be interesting to see how this technology progresses over the coming months …

If you or a loved one has suffered because of a medical professional’s failure to diagnose a traumatic brain injury, you should strongly consider consulting with a qualified legal professional.

Sources: The Washington Post, “Business Rx: The key to Brain Sentry’s business may be winning over the parents,” Sept. 30, 2012 The New York Times, “Early detection for brain injuries,” Anne Eisenberg, Aug. 25, 2012

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