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by Kris Osborn

High-tech liner for NFL helmets and soft materials designed to cushion player impact on astro-turf are among a handful of innovations competing for research grants in the NFL-led Head Health Challenge, officials explained.

Officials with the NFL’s Head Health Challenge, a three-part, multi-pronged effort led by the NFL with corporate partners from Under Armour and General Electric, are getting ready to announce a new round of winners on Dec. 3.

The winners will be slated to receive research grants to continue developing next-generation technologies designed to better diagnose and treat concussions and traumatic brain injury.

NFL officials have been collaborating with the Army for quite some time on this project, due to the common interest in better identifying and treating head injuries caused by combat or collisions on the NFL playing field. 

Army officials have been involved in judging many of the research proposals – and the Army Research Laboratory has been among those selected to receive research grant money. In total, the NFL’s Head Health Challenge is a $25million effort aimed at recognizing and supporting innovation and emerging technologies that can increase safety and prevent concussions as well.

Winning Technologies

Many of the winning technologies have already been discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, however there are a few more which merit special attention.

A high-tech material designed to be used as a new under-helmet liner that would absorb more energy to better protect the brain is a promising innovation developed by the University of California Los Angeles and Architected Materials. The technology, which uses a microlattice material for improved helmet performance, is among those selected as winners of research grants.

A protective liner of this kind that did not restrict mobility would, it seems, be of great value to both NFL players and Army soldiers. 

While NFL executives such as Jeff Miller, Vice President of Health and Safety for the NFL, told Scout Warrior that NFL play is nothing like the high-risk, high-stakes rigors of combat – there are similarities. Both NFL players and soldiers would want to retain a flexibility of movement while at the same time have additional protection from collisions.

In the case of NFL players, this would naturally be tackles, sacks, helmet to helmet hits and slams into the turf. For soldiers, an additional cushion could reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury from proximity to a blast from a roadside bomb, shrapnel or gunfire.

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Another promising innovation chosen for a research grant is an underlayer technology for synthetic turf design to lessen the severity of impact. This material, which could also be applied to soldiers’ helmets, is designed to prevent concussion or serious head injury by virtue of creating a softer or more cushioned landing, NFL officials explained. This technology, by a Detroit, Mich. Firm called Viconic Sporting, is already used in the automotive and sporting industries, officials said.

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. 

The number of firms and organizations chosen to receive research grants will get slightly smaller in coming weeks as the Head Health Challenges announces a group of finalists for Round II of its competition. 

As these technologies mature, the issue of head injuries from collision in NFL play and combat is likely to continue to receive much attention.   There have been a number of high-profile concussions of NFL Quarterbacks recently, including  the Vikings Teddy Bridgewater, the Rams Case Keenum and Steelers QB Rothlisberger – to mention a few.

One story in the Washington Post, citing unmanned officials, said the NFL is considering additional changes to its concussion protocol based on the Keenum situation.

Hollywood superstar Will Smith stars in an upcoming movie which explores the issue called “Concussion” which will be released in coming weeks. The movie is reportedly very tough on the NFL, according to various report.

In addition, a brain disease caused by repeated head trauma called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is likely to get more attention in coming weeks as well.  The disease, which can cause a host of neurological and psychological problems, can at the moment only be diagnosed after death. Recently deceased NFL legend Frank Gifford, it was announced in numerous reports, suffered from CTE.

With all this in mind, officials with both the NFL Head Health Challenge and the Army are optimistic that these emerging technologies can have a huge impact when it comes to improving player and soldier safety.

NFL Concussion Protocols

As the Head Health Challenge evolves, NFL officials say the league is continuing to revise and adjust its concussion protocols.

“We revise our concussion protocols annually with our players association. We make tweaks to them from year to year. Criteria for identifying them have broadened. We have an athletic trainer who sits up in the skybox who can call down to the medical staff  if there is a player on the field who looks like he needs a little bit of help,” Miller said.

Miller also added that a new provision introduced this year will allow officials in the skybox to call down to a referee to stop the game if there is a player who looks like he needs help after suffering a collision.