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Tuesday, February 05, 2013
Can technology solve the NFL's head injury problem?
From The Verge:
A SAFER HELMET HAS BECOME FOOTBALL’S HOLY GRAIL
If you were one of the viewers who helped make last night’s Super Bowl among the most-watched television events in history, you may not have spent much time worrying about the players’ safety. But if so, the NFL wanted to make sure you knew it shares your concern. As part of a long-running effort, the league ran several ads on the topic, the longest of which recapped a century of safety advances. As SB Nation’s Jon Boisexplained, the spot alludes to rule changes from the elimination of "flying wedge" blocking formations to the prohibition on horse-collar tackles. Unsurprisingly, though, the commercial emphasized the evolution of the football helmet, from a thin piece of leather to today’s advanced plastic shells, complete with face guard. And while the NFL and its partners continue to improve safety — from rule changes to high-tech devices like injury-detecting cameras — the helmet has taken center stage.
That’s because in recent years the questions around player safety have changed. Concern about broken bodies has begun to center on that most complicated part of the human anatomy: the brain. Since at least 2009 the league has wrestled with the problem of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. Research suggests a link between CTE and the sort of brain injury a football player might suffer hundreds or even thousands of times in his career — that includes concussions that lay a player out as well as "sub-concussions," minor traumas that easily go undiagnosed. CTE-afflicted individuals suffer from dementia and depression; several former players have committed suicide and been posthumously diagnosed with CTE, including 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who last March shot himself in the chest. (The NFL's 30-second commercial, titled "Protecting the game," features three players among the 4,000 involved in concussion-related lawsuits against the league.)
In the wake of such high-profile tragedies, the NFL — along with football fans, players, and coaches everywhere — has had to face the realization that what used to be called "bell ringers" are in fact serious brain injuries. Football, in other words, now has to understand the brain. Football has to get smarter.
That means first understanding CTE, and then taking steps to prevent it. The condition first came to light in 2002. The body of Mike Webster, a former Steeler who’d died of a heart attack, showed a brain clogged with tau proteins, a condition associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Before his death Webster had suffered depression and a downward spiral. "Iron Mike" had gone from being a Hall of Famer, maybe one of football’s greatest centers, to penniless and sleeping in his car. He was just 50 when he died.
Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who diagnosed CTE in Webster, soon found the condition in other athletes. Other researchers followed; CTE appeared not just in long-retired professional players, but in high-school players as well. Unfortunately, the only way to diagnose CTE was posthumously, when the subject’s brain could be sectioned and examined.
That changed only recently, when UCLA researchers using proprietary brain-imaging techniques identified tau proteins in five still-living ex-NFL players. The tau buildup fit the pattern for CTE; all the players had suffered at least one concussion during their careers, reinforcing the link between brain trauma and CTE.
Which brings us back to helmets. Protecting the head means protecting the brain, the intuition goes, so a race has begun to build a better helmet. But it’s not an easy problem to solve. Football is a contact sport, with players who are almost by definition physical anomalies: they are stronger and faster than average human beings, and they’re stronger and faster than they were even a decade ago. (Former Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton wrote a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, noting that when he was a player forty years ago, few lineman weighed more than 250 pounds; today they’re routinely more than 300 pounds. Tarkenton offered this as evidence the league isn’t quite as vigilant about performance-enhancing substances as it would like to claim.) When large men traveling at high speeds hit one another, it doesn’t take a physics major to predict the results.
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