Space & Innovation

Collar for Athletes Could Prevent Brain Trauma

The device was inspired by woodpeckers, which appear to tolerate repetitive head impacts by adjusting the blood flowing to their brains.

According to a report in the New York Times Wednesday, another high-profile NFL player has been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

Ken Stabler, a star quarterback for the Oakland Raiders, died last year from colon cancer at the age of 69. At his request, researchers at Boston university analyzed his brain and discovered an advanced level of CTE, a disease that has been diagnosed in more than 100 NFL players, according to the Times.

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The good news is that help may be on the way. After successful testing on animals, researchers are preparing for human trials of a collar device that appears to reduce brain impact trauma. The device works by increasing the volume of blood in the skull, cushioning the brain and preventing the "sloshing" effect that produces CTE lesions.

According to a report at MIT Technology Review, the u-shaped collar works by applying precise but gentle pressure to the jugular veins in the neck, slightly reducing the amount of blood that flows out of the skull every heartbeat. Because the brain is not actually attached to the skull, the increased pressure prevents the "sloshing" effect, in which the brain bangs up against the interior of the skull.

Tests with rat brains suggest that such jugular compression leads to reduced signs of brain injury. The approach was inspired by studying woodpeckers and bighorn sheep, both of which appear to tolerate repetitive head impacts by adjusting the blood pressure and volume in the skull.

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Going forward, the proposed human studies would involve testing the effect of the collar on volunteer athletes - football and hockey players so far. Throughout the season, head impacts will be measured with helmet-mounted accelerometers, and the players' brains will be monitored with electroencephalography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques.

One more interesting note from the MIT report: Apparently, reported concussion rates in football are about 30 percent lower in games played at high altitude, where blood volume in the brain tends to increase. Who knew?

via MIT Technology Review[/i

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady leaves a New York City courthouse on Sept. 3, after his four-game suspension was overturned.