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Written by: Alex Budde
Written on: June 25th, 2015
Tags: biomedical engineering, health & medicine, sports & recreation, lifestyle, material science
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Volume XVII Issue III > Solving the Brain Crisis in Sports
Over the past few decades professional and collegiate football leagues have garnered significant attention regarding the health and safety issues that players face, specifically pertaining to concussions and brain health. While head injuries can occur in a variety of different ways, hard hits involving the helmets of one or more players are identified as the most dangerous and account for the large majority of concussions in all levels of the sport. In response, many large sports equipment manufacturers have begun the development and implementation of safer technologies in their helmets. But these only scrape the surface of the issue. Independent scientists and engineers, however, have come up with several promising helmet technologies that hope to substantially reduce the impact players receive when hit during games. If these enhancements prove successful, they could forever improve the safety of not only professional football players, but athletes of all ages and of all contact sports.

Introduction

The physicality in contact sports such as American football is the aspect of the game that is most appealing to a large portion of fans. Contact sports have always been considered dangerous, but only recently have the negative long-term effects of head injuries in sports been completely understood. Several ex-NFL players have been developing serious mental health issues linked to neurodegeneration. Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or ALS, have no known cures and are characterized by memory loss and eventually death. In addition, multiple high profile players, such as Junior Seau, have committed suicides, which is thought to be the result of head trauma-induced depression [1].
After noting the trend of declining brain health in ex-football players, physicians began to test the brains of deceased players to find that several players developed the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that is linked exclusively to individuals who experience severe head trauma or repeated concussions.
Injury Board National Newsdesk
Figure 1: MRI's comparing a normal brain with a brain of an Alzheimer's patient experiencing severe neurodegeneration.
Th​rough extended research scientists have concluded that these mental health side effects also occur frequently in collegiate football players, and that younger athletes who begin playing tackle football before the age of 12 significantly increase their risk of developing neurological disorders later in life [2]. Findings also show that these terrifying ailments are not exclusive to football, but occur almost as often in other sports in which players receive repeated impact to the head such as hockey, lacrosse and boxing. As the understanding of how and why these brain injuries occur gets better, engineers have begun to use that knowledge to develop safer head protection to save the minds of athletes everywhere.