Football: Sensors in Helmet Alert of Possible Brain InjuryYou sit there watching as your teenage son jumps up and catches the football in midair. The crowd is in an uproar, your heart swells with pride, as he turns and begins to run down the field. Then suddenly, your heart stops. You watch as the other team’s 240 lb. linebacker moves in on your pride and joy. It seems to you like the big brute purposely bulldozed your little boy. He’s down and he doesn’t jump right back up. You begin to panic, but the coach is out there in a jiffy. He scrapes your son up and gets him to the sidelines.

You listen as the referee calls a penalty for a helmet-on-helmet violation. Then you run for the locker room to check on him. The coach tells you he is having the team’s doctor take a look at him to make sure he doesn’t have a concussion or other brain injury. You stand by chewing your fingernails and praying for all you are worth that he will be okay.

This is a typical scenario at high school football games, but due to the frequency of such injuries in sporting arenas around the world, a new tool is currently under development that will help doctors more accurately check players for head injuries. The new tool incorporates specialized sensors into a player’s helmet to determine when an impact is serious enough to pose a health risk to the wearer of the helmet. These sensors could potentially be the first line of defense in detecting trauma of the brain after the player suffers a hard knock.

Developers tell us that these futuristic portable sensors, which are still in the prototype stage, will be able to decipher neural activity by measuring the changes in the brain’s magnetic field. Sensing these brain changes could mean that, while they are currently being tested for athletic use, it is possible that the uses for these revolutionary little sensors could be expanded.

One such use could be in the field of neurology where these sensors could be utilized for brain imaging and for monitoring the brain patterns for disease. Another medical use incorporates these minute sensors into prostheses and other medical devices, possibly making them subjective to brain thought. With enough effort, who knows? Maybe they could be inserted in the spine to restore movement to limbs that are currently paralyzed.

In the research and development field, I can see how researchers could use the sensors to treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s. If not a cure for this worse-than-death disease, these sensors could provide patients who suffer from the disease with a better way to manage it by having the sensors monitor changes in the brain. Brainwaves could be recorded in real time then analyzed at a later date and time. This, in turn, could lead to a further understanding of the disease and how the disease affects patients.

So think about all the possibilities. In addition to medical research and a limitless number of dangerous sports such as boxing, football, ice hockey, baseball, and other sports, these little devices could be life-saving for the loved one involved in a car collision. The head injuries received in crashes often result in death if not impaired function for life, but if they could be monitored and the results more quickly diagnosed, steps could be taken to alleviate some of the damaging effects on the brain. However, there is still work to be done on these gadgets. The developers know that they are still too large and expensive for everyday usage. The fact is that they need to find a way to decrease both the size — ideally, to the dimensions of a sugar cube — and the cost per unit. They realize that, until this happens, it is impractical to place them inside of an athlete’s head gear.

One of the biggest advantages of these smaller sensors is that they can be placed in the helmet to optimize their location to key brain areas where their neural signals can be more easily read. In other words, the closer the sensors are to the scalp, the better the signal and therefore the better the diagnostic information that is received.

Of course, this information alone would not be conclusive, but again, these little magnetic wizards could be of service in other neurological applications such as measuring the complexity of brainwaves where they could provide a clearer picture of the complex snap, crackle, and pop that is given off by the neurons in EGG testing machines. This could be accomplished by placing a cap of electrodes onto the patient’s skull to access the signal patterns.

Last, this technology could be used beyond what has been mentioned. Examples include, but are not limited to, optical magnetometry, which is currently being used to monitor the magnetic fields around the heart. This new technology makes it easier for doctors to spot various abnormalities of the heart. In fact, this new technology has also been used to read the heart variations in a fetus just 20 weeks old.

It may take a few years before the technology is mature enough to be used in routine diagnosis of head injuries, heart abnormalities, and heart monitoring, but be assured that advances in health care are on the way.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

Source: NY Times

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by Liz Henry