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November 16, 2011

High-tech helmets

Researchers, football players collaborate to learn more about the sport’s risks

student with helmets

Kirsten Ross ’11, a health project coordinator in the Department of Emergency Medicine, downloads data collected from the Yellowjackets’ football helmets after every game and practice of the season. Cumulative effects of repeated low-impact blows to football players’ heads are the subject of research by concussion researcher Jeff Bazarian.

John Whiting ’12 has a lot to think about when he’s on the field. The Yellowjacket offensive lineman from LeRoy, N.Y., has to worry about snap counts, play formations, and, most of all, blocking the defensive lineman he’s responsible for in order to give his Rochester teammates a better chance to move the ball down the field.

He doesn’t think much about how many times his head, cocooned in its protective helmet, gets knocked into. Going head-to-head in the trenches, as it were, comes with the territory.

“Once I’m on the field, there are so many other things running through my head that there really isn’t time to think about anything else,” Whiting says.

helmetsA new Rochester study exploring the overall effect of multiple small blows to the head—the kind that are routine for many football players, for example—may give athletes, trainers, coaches, and sports medicine specialists much to think about in coming years.

Led by Jeff Bazarian, an associate professor of emergency medicine, neurology, neurosurgery, and community and preventive medicine, the study is investigating the possibility that less forceful but repetitive head blows may be at least as damaging to players’ brains as single, concussive blows.

Bazarian’s team followed 10 Yellowjacket football players, each sporting a helmet specially outfitted with six sensors that show how many times, and with what force, players take head blows in the course of each practice and game.

“What we’re hoping to find out is, what’s the relationship between the amount of very subtle injury we can detect in a player’s brain and the amount of force the head receives over the course of a season?” Bazarian says.

For the past several years, the long-term danger posed to athletes—especially football players—has come into greater focus. A study commissioned by the National Football League, with results released in 2009, showed that former players in the league ran a substantially higher risk—a rate 19 times the normal one for men aged 30 to 49—of Alzheimer’s disease and related memory diseases.

“It may not be the single concussion that’s the problem long term. The brain does a pretty good job of recovering from that,” Bazarian says. “But when you have day-in, day-out hits, you don’t give the brain a chance to do what it needs to do to get better. And that may be the problem.”

The research had its beginnings in a pilot study with students at a Rochester area high school in 2007. Bazarian was looking to see if it was possible to detect brain injury from the sport on a new kind of brain scan, called defusion tensor imaging (DTI), that allows researchers to look at the brain on the cellular level.

Bazarian and his collaborators scanned the high school students at the beginning and end of the season. By the end of the season, only one student had suffered a concussion.

“We looked at the scans, and we found that the one player who’d had a concussion had a significant amount of injury on the scan—but the other nine players, who didn’t get concussed, had almost as much injury,” he says.

He applied for funding from NFL Charities, a nonprofit foundation established by the league’s 32 member clubs, to further his research, and the group has provided 10 specially designed helmets that enable Bazarian and Kirsten Ross ’11—a health project coordinator for the Department of Emergency Medicine—to track how many head blows a player receives in each game and practice, where he is hit, and with what force. The 10 participating Yellowjackets received DTI scans at the start of the season, at the conclusion, and will again six months later. They also participate in blood testing and genotyping to help researchers get a fuller picture of their condition. Five control subjects—Rochester students, but not members of the team—are also taking part in the study.

“After the first practice, we looked at one player’s helmet impact data on the computer, and he’d been hit 70 times,” Bazarian says. “Seventy times, one player, one practice—it wasn’t even a game. So over the course of the season, players are going to be hit on the order of a thousand times or so, I think.”

The public health implications, he notes, are significant. “There are thousands of 9- and 10-year-olds playing Pop Warner football. They may play competitively for 8 to 10 years. If these low-level head hits cause injury, and if this injury builds up from year to year, we’d better find out. And we’d better find out soon.”

The research exemplifies Medical Center–College collaboration with the participation not just of the football team but also of DTI “guru”—in Bazarian’s words—Jianhui Zhong, a professor of imaging sciences and biomedical engineering at the School of Medicine and Dentistry, and Eric Blackman, a professor of physics and astronomy in the College, who will interpret the impact data.

High-Tech Helmets

Key to emergency physician Jeff Bazarian's research are specially outfitted helmets that allow him and his team to evaluate just what injuries a player's brain may hsustain over the course of a season.  Brain scans at the start and end of the season, as well as six months later, may also show damage and healing.

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