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by Kris Osborn


Quick sideline or combat-zone blood tests, portable eye goggles and quick-reacting head injury diagnostic devices are among some of the winners of research grants awarded through the NFL’s Head Health Challenge initiative --- an effort designed to better diagnose, treat and prevent concussions and traumatic brain injury.

There continues to be substantial NFL-Army collaboration on these efforts due to a common interest in more quickly recognizing the existence of concussions and head injuries through on-the-spot emerging technologies.

The NFL wants to accurately assess the needed timeframe for allowing players to return to the field of play after a head-related collision, and Army officials tell Scout Warrior that, at times, soldiers in proximity to a blast will not know they have suffered a concussion until several days after an incident. Diagnosing concussions more quickly in both of these instances, therefore, could drastically improve outcomes.

A key area of focus for existing research is in a field referred to as “Biomarkers,” much of which consists of quick blood tests designed to rapidly determine if a concussion has occurred following a collision on the football field or explosion in combat.

Prior to the use of technology, such as an MRI, there are no scientific metrics established to determine whether a concussion has occurred, NFL officials said.

“Currently, concussions are based on subjective diagnosis based on signs and symptoms - which immediately may not show up for a period of up to 24 hours. There are many ideas we have like blood tests or eye movement challenges which may indicate a concussion,” Jeff Miller, NFL Vice President for Health and Safety Policy, told Scout Warrior in an interview. “I don’t want to ever compare the NFL with what goes on on the battlefield, but there are some similarities.”

NFL officials naturally advocated for player safety and hope for the safest possible game on the field of play. Of course they would like to see healthy players more quickly return to the game, yet at the same time NFL officials hope to prevent long-term injury or health risks known to be associated with head injuries.

When it comes to both Army soldiers and NFL players, rapid scientific diagnosis could make a huge difference with treatment protocol.

“There are some research initiatives around initially diagnosing concussions. There are many ideas like blood tests or eye movement challenges which may indicate a concussion,” Miller said.

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One of the winners is a firm called Banyan Biomarkers in San Diego, California. They are developing blood tests aimed at better understanding biomedical pathways that occur in the brain after a concussion.  The firm is also working on neurocognitive testing and neuroimaging.

Another biomarker research grant winner is Quanterix in Lexington, Massachusetts. The firm seeks to establish a scientific basis for measuring molecular signatures of brain injury in the blood through a simple on-site blood test. Quanterix wants to better detect and quantify mild to moderate traumatic brain injury almost immediately after the injury has taken place in order to assist in treatment options.

Meanwhile, the University of Miami is working on a portable eye-goggle that precisely measures eye movements. Called the I-Portal PAS goggle, this technology is also geared toward identifying mild traumatic brain injury in real-time. This research has received funding from the Army Medical Research and Materials Command and the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence.

A portable sideline device with a headset and hand-held screen is also being developed to quickly assess a player’s symptoms, such as eye movements, cognitive function and balance. Called iDETECT, the Emory University innovation measures balance, cognitive function and eye movement to check for head injuries.

Naturally soldiers want to remain healthy and return to combat as soon as possible if they happen to be in the vicinity of an explosion, roadside bomb or gunfire near their helmet. A more serious risk for traumatic brain injury would of course come if a soldier were hit in the head by a bullet or shrapnel. 

All of this is part of the Head Health Challenge, a three-stage effort to support research and innovation aimed at better protecting NFL players from head injuries. The $25 million effort is a collaborative venture involving Army participation and corporate partnership from General Electric and Under Armour, NFL officials told Scout Warrior.

First launched in 2013, the Head Health Challenge has been assessing research proposals and awarding millions in grants to promising innovations. Since 2012, the Army and the NFL have been working on a cooperative Memorandum of Understanding first established by former Army Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The Head Health Challenge is broken down into three distinct phases designed to identify or better diagnose concussions, treat them more successfully and prevent them from happening, and the third challenge is aimed at using various innovations to mitigate the impact to the head resulting from a collision. In fact, awards from the second part of Phase II and elements of Phase III are expected to be announced in the coming weeks. 

Under Armour Vice President, Sam McCleery, who oversees laboratory and innovation practices for the company, said the ongoing research could have positive implications for youth football, as well.

“We want to bring Under Armour to the table and show that safety is something that kids and parents want to understand. We have a committed approach to innovation. Team sports is a great way to produce leaders,   and Under Armour was founded on a football field,” he said.