This year’s Super Bowl and an often controversial NFL season are behind us and I’d like to congratulate the New England Patriots on the nice win. (Seattle, you put up a good fight but that was a pretty risky call at the last minute!) But, even as the win by the Pats fades, a new controversy has stirred. Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril exited the Super Bowl in the third quarter after being diagnosed with a concussion. Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman passed a concussion test during the Super Bowl on Sunday, allowing him to continue to play, but it could have just as easily gone the other way.
Football intrigues fans because it requires top physical conditioning to achieve amazing performances, and unmatched strategic preparation and training to play a game of extreme complexity. While I admire those on the field and off — the players and the coaches — I also feel guilty, as these athletes can sacrifice their health to provide us with entertainment.
In 2013, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) released a position statement estimating as many as 3.8 million concussions occur within sports annually — with up to 50 percent of concussion injuries going unreported. The NFL now is laying out new rules to minimize the risk of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). If we cannot eliminate the impacts that are an integral part of this sport we can minimize, and hopefully completely prevent, any concussion-induced disabilities in the future.
Discussing this with my friend, Dr. Jean-Marc Raymacker, neurologist at St. Peter Hospital in Ottignies, Belgium, I’ve learned that the shock wave induced by the impact, quickly propagating from the front to the back of the brain, could locally deteriorate cells but also alter small but essential blood vessels. This leads to neuropsychology troubles such as attention issues. Minimizing the damage to the brain by employing a helmet that absorbs more of the shock and reduces the sudden stress amplification from shock reflection experienced by the brain is the obvious solution.
Cost-effective innovation requires a way to rapidly test various modifications of a design — a way to measure the impact of these changes — using a complete virtual prototype. Modeling the behavior of the human brain under various conditions is a huge and intimidating challenge, and we are just scratching the surface. Researchers already are modeling a few brain-related functions including cerebral aneurysm treatment, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) for Parkinson’s disease and Epilepsy, and neuromodulation to treat depression and help with post-stroke rehabilitation. Partnering with best-in-class companies such as Simpleware has provided ANSYS with the detailed geometry of a head, including the various components of the brain, and a football helmet. This allowed our explicit modeling experts, Chris Quan and Bence Gerber, to create a parametric model that includes both the helmet and the athlete’s specific head system that includes the brain.
Soon after impact, the stress dramatically increases in the brain. Adequately using more absorbing materials should reduce significantly the degree of stress experienced by the brain.
The results yield insightful information about the amplitude and the propagation of stress in different parts of the brain depending upon the location of impact. Modifying the material properties of some helmet components to test more shock-absorbing materials such as elastomer or composite material suggests a significant reduction in the stresses experienced by the brain. In the future, we might be able to make customized helmets for each player, using automated manufacturing based on a head scan and combined with the simulation of potential impacts.
Dr. Raymacker was pleasantly surprised by the relevance of simulation results, quoting a recent AAN release: “You only get one brain and it’s important to treat it well and follow the American Academy of Neurology’s guideline recommendations on sports concussion.” He is encouraging software developers, helmet designers and his neurologist colleagues to collaborate closely to design safer equipment and to create more advanced brain models that reflect injuries from sports including ice hockey or boxing, to mention a couple. Special attention to the repetition of small impacts, especially on young athletes whose brain is still maturing, is essential to prevent the risk of future disabilities.
If we can take a couple of minutes to explain how to properly inflate footballs, we can take a few more in the next few months before next season to come up with new equipment designs to better protect our athletes. It’s time to regroup with my colleagues Chris and Bence, our partner Simpleware, neurologists, and clients to make sure 2016’s Super Bowl will be safer for its stars.
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