Through 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 . 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.
The Science of Sports-Related Head Injuries
Acceleration of the brain causes the brain to “bounce” around in the skull cavity, meaning that the movement of the brain lags behind the movement of the skull when impacted. This “bouncing around” in the skull creates tension in the blood vessels that connect the brain and skull, which stretches brain tissue and causes brain damage . Linear acceleration (Figure 2) is caused by a straight hit to the center of a player’s head, and can cause skull fractures in addition to the stretching of tissue that causes concussions. Rotational acceleration (Figure 3) is caused by an off-center hit to the head that spins the head around its center of gravity. This type of acceleration causes the brain tissue to stretch and twist simultaneously. Therefore, most researchers agree that rotational acceleration is the more dangerous form of the two .
On average a hit that creates a concussion generates about 95 g’s of force. A single g of force represents the regular force of gravity that keeps a person grounded, meaning that a player sustaining a concussion experiences a force at least 95 times greater than gravity. The average hit delivered by a football player of any skill level is 103 g’s, and when a professional player delivers an off-center hit that creates rotational generation, that hit can generate up to 190 g’s of force due to the increased torque caused by the head’s rotation . Given such physical forces it is not hard to see why concussions are so prevalent in the sport.
While large sports equipment manufacturers have implemented smaller scale safety precautions to their helmets, two independent research teams have created their own technologies in an effort to create the safest football helmet. Architected Materials and researchers at UCLA have developed a microlattice material to be placed in helmets to reduce impact and track collisions, while Swedish company MIPS is using helmet technology that features a flowing plastic layer currently used in their bike helmets in an attempt to reduce rotational acceleration.
Designed as a continuous padding throughout the helmet, the microlattice developed in UCLA Material Science laboratories with the help of Architected Materials seeks to prevent concussions and head trauma by absorbing impact energy rather than distributing it. The material gets its name from its ordered crisscross structure, similar to that of a crystal lattice (Figure 6). The lattice’s structure and composition make it breathable and extremely light, offering better airflow through the helmet and limiting the mass that will make impact upon other helmets.
The material has out-performed the traditional vinyl nitrile helmet padding in several impact tests, and can be manufactured quickly and inexpensively. The lattice material also acts as a sensor that transmits data specific to a collision, allowing engineers to identify how to improve the design of the structure. The material is relatively new, so the lab has yet to release hard data detailing exactly how much the microlattice can reduce impact forces. However, preliminary tests do show substantial promise in the material, and the NFL recently awarded the design team $500,000 to continue their research due to the microlattice’s perceived potential .
Multidirectional Impact Protection System
What Comes Next?
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