'Head Health Challenge' Finalists Might Shape the Future of Concussion Prevention

These seven research endeavors are pioneering efforts for identifying and preventing trauma-induced brain injuries.

Earlier this month, Under Armour, the NFL and GE announced the seven winners of the second round of their Head Health Challenge.

The goal of Head Health is to increase overall brain safety for athletes—to fund different ideas that detect, identify, monitor and measure head impacts or that protect the brain from traumatic injury. Over 500 proposals from 19 different countries were submitted. Seven initiatives will receive $500,000 in funding; and after a year during which Head Health's panel of judges will evaluate each one's progress, five of the seven will receive an additional $1 million in 2015 to advance their work and research on identifying, treating, and preventing brain injuries.

RELATED: Concussion Awareness and Prevention Series

This marks the second phase of the open innovation challenge, a four-year, $40 million effort. Here are the seven winners: 

Army Research Laboratory, Baltimore 

The Army Research Laboratory (ARL) has created a special tether that is "rate-dependent"—it stretches and relaxes, allowing free motion at low speeds, but providing high force resistance when pulled quickly.  ARL proposes using the material to couple the head to the torso, allowing voluntary head movement during sports action, while minimizing sudden acceleration caused by high speed collisions.

"Because there is so much overlap between our concerns with soldier brain injury and the NFL's interest in maintaining the head health of athletes, this partnership is of mutual benefit," says Eric Wetzel, Ph.D., technical area manager for Materials for Soldier Protection at ARL

Emory University, Atlanta

A prototype medical device named iDETECT screens and assesses concussions on-site or on the sidelines of sporting events. Consisting of a headset and a handheld device, the iDETECT measures cognitive function, eye movements, and balance.

"It's not diagnostic, but in measuring how the brain responds to stimuli, it will provide objective information as to the severity of the injury, and a probability scale to help make decisions about whether someone is ready for play," says David Wright, MD and Director of Emergency Neurosciences at Emory University School of Medicine.

Wright continues: "The ways concussions are currently being evaluated on the field are fairly inadequate as acute assessments. The tools that we currently have, such as imPACT, a common computerized neuropsych test, or BESTest, a balance evaluation test, are all individual tests. You have to purchase them separately, you have to figure out what you're going to do with the results in isolation and in combination, how to interpret that information. What we're doing with iDETECT is that we're defragmenting all of that and making it in one single device where the results from several different tests are all combined within the device to provide one final assessment."


UCLA and Architected Materials, Inc. are developing a new energy-absorbing microlattice material for improved helmet performance.  The material used as an under-helmet liner would absorb significantly more energy than current designs to better protect the brain.

"When you look at the makeup of the lattice structure, what you get is the individual units of architecture," says Bamidele Ali, VP of Business Development at Architected Materials. "You get a lot of surface area, which is what gives it its unique construction."

The materials are coated with carbon nanotubes that give off electrical signals to detect the amount of compression.

"When I played football, I never had any level of quantitative feedback on how I was doing," says Ali. "When you get hit and you hit the ground, there's so much adrenaline going that the symptoms are muted."

Through a collaboration of material designers, mechanical impact experts, and neuroscientists, they will use a new 3D printing platform to develop real-time responsive helmet technology.

University of Miami

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is developing a portable eye-goggle that gathers and measures precise eye movements for more accurate concussion diagnoses.  The goggle evaluates the eyes at the time and point of injury and their response to baseline testing (motion, light, etc.).

"A lot of things happen when you have a traumatic brain injury, but the most apparent and testable symptom is dizziness," explains Michael Hoffer, Professor of Otolaryngology at Miami Miller School of Medicine.  "If the eyes don't move right, it's because the brain's messages to the eye aren't reaching the eye."

The technology has been used to detect mild traumatic brain injuries in the U.S. military at the Army Medical Research and Materials Command, and at the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence.

University of Washington, Seattle

The University of Washington is developing a revolutionary football helmet with their commercial partner, VICIS, Inc., and their team of engineers, neurosurgeons and public health experts.  The helmet boasts an impact-absorbing structure and materials to better protect against head injuries.

"It's a novel helmet structure designed to slow acceleration from impact before reaching the brain," says Dave Marver, CEO of VICIS. "The overall structure of the helmet is different from the typical helmet. It has been engineered from the ground up."

RELATED: Study: Football Hits Cause Brain Changes Even Without Concussion

Viconic, Inc., Detroit

Viconic's research is focused on developing an under layer for synthetic turf systems that will make fields safer for those who play on them.

"A substantial percentage of concussions in all sports at all levels are due in part to the impact of the playing surface," says Joel Cormier, Director of Development Engineering at Viconic Sporting. "In the incidence of a fall or of contact with that surface with substantial force, you want a surface to be able to give and absorb a percentage of that impact energy."

Viconic's technology was developed and forged in the automotive industry, providing head impact protection in over 65 percent of the vehicles made and sold in the U.S. today. It also has had various applications in the military.

Cormier goes on: "Our end goal is to create a guide for selecting an optimal head impact performance synthetic turf system that minimizes a risk of concussion without promoting an increase in the frequency of lower limb injuries."

University of New Hampshire, Durham

University of New Hampshire researchers will be leading a study evaluating the effectiveness of a helmet-free tackling training system, named the HuTT Technique.

"As an athletic trainer, I would notice that players have their helmets on all the time, even on 'non-contact days,'" says Erik Swartz, Professor and Chair of the Department of Kinesiology at UNH. "So I thought that there must be some kind of way to reinforce the tackling technique without initiating contact with the head, without taking the protective equipment out of the sport altogether."

Swartz will investigate whether the long-term implementation of the HuTT Technique, in which players participate in supervised drills emphasizing proper tackling and blocking technique without their helmets and shoulder pads, reduces injury risk once players go into full-pads play. Both the treatment and control group will wear impact sensors behind their ears, which measure the number and magnitude of impacts.

"I think it's just inherent in the culture, historically in football since the 50's, that we have a helmet on and it should be on all the time," continues Swartz. "When in fact the helmet actually contributes to and enables head contact. It's a catch-22."

For more information on what the NFL has done to raise awareness about concussion prevention in football, check out the video player above, where USA Football master trainer Dick Adams discusses the key elements and benefits of the Heads Up football program.

RELATED: Protect Your Brain With This Neck Workout

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