How a helmet-mounted sensor could make youth sports safer

Like plenty of parents, Nathalie King, a mother in Annapolis, Md., was worried about her 13-year-old son playing football because of the risk of concussions.  As if the statistics aren’t alarming enough — it’s estimated that high school football players sustain between 43,000 and 67,000 concussions a year — a stream of lawsuits against the National Football League has placed the issue even more front and center before the sports and parenting worlds.

But, now, when her son takes the field in his maroon and gold uniform, King breathes a little easier — and it’s all because of a two-inch by one-inch sensor mounted to the back of his helmet.

“That was a big part of why we wouldn’t let him play football in his younger years — because of concussions,” King said. “We’re definitely more likely to let him continue playing [because of] the sensors.”

Created by Bethesda, Md.-based Brain Sentry, the sensor uses an accelerometer that detects the force of a hit. Because the physics of the helmet is different from the physics of the head, the company said, the accelerometer floats in a viscous material similar to how the brain floats inside the skull. And to make things easy for busy parents and their teenage sons, the $60 devices (which are under $50 when ordered in bulk by teams) require no maintenance — players can activate the sensor at the beginning of the season and never worry about charging or changing the battery.

Sensor warns coaches when to pull players to the sidelines

If a player is hit hard enough, the device flashes a red light indicating that there’s a 25 percent chance of a concussion. It can’t detect brain injury or diagnose a concussion, but it gives coaches an objective way of knowing when to pull a player to the sidelines and administer a concussion assessment.

Brain SentryThe device is only being tested by five teams in the country now, but after it launches in July, it will make its way to the helmets for about 100 youth sports teams (mostly football and some lacrosse) nationwide.

“[Our hope is] to revolutionize brain safety in sports [and] eliminate catastrophic brain injuries caused when kids play with undiagnosed concussions,” said Brain Sentry CEO Greg Merrill.

Part of the problem, he said, is that players don’t report symptoms of concussions out of fear that they’ll be pulled from the game. A survey of high school players last year, for example, found that more than half of those who felt common concussion symptoms never told anyone.

Establishing a ‘hit count’ for youth football

Brain Sentry’s device not only takes the decision to report potentially harmful blows out of the player’s hands, its newest version counts the number of hits so that coaches know when players might be approaching a danger zone.

brain sentry 2The company’s technology comes amid growing concern that smaller, successive hits to the head could be as damaging to a developing brain as a single, acute blow.  For example, a 2011 study from the University of Rochester indicated that routine head hits in school sports could lead to long-term brain damage in young athletes. And, last year, the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute proposed a “hit count” for young athletes to reduce the risk of concussion and brain damage. They estimate that youth football players may receive an average of 1,000 hits to the head per season, with a mean force of about 20 Gs.

Much like a “pitch count” in youth baseball intended to mitigate damage to the arms of young pitchers, the SLI proposes that no athlete under 18 years old should sustain more than 1,000 hits the head exceeding 10 Gs of force in a season, and no more than 2,000 times a year.

Concussions take center stage in 2012-2013 football season

Brain Sentry’s launch also comes on the heels of a football season packed with concussion-centric headlines. According to reports, more than 160 NFL players suffered a head injury and the league is currently embroiled in a landmark lawsuit involving more than 4,000 players arguing that the league withheld information about the long-term risks of playing football.

Earlier this year, the NFL and GE announced a $40 million research project to uncover new technologies for preventing and treating traumatic brain injuries. But, already, companies in addition to Brain Sentry are developing devices meant to tackle concussions.

Helmet company Riddell offers expensive sensor-equipped helmets for college and professional football teams. But newer devices are trying to come in at prices more affordable for younger athletes. Reebok and MC10 are developing Checklight, a skullcap-light head impact monitor that uses flexible sensors to warn coaches and players about severe blows. X2 Biosystems, which has a deal with the NFL for its concussion-detecting software, has created sensor-equipped mouthguards and patches that monitor head impacts. And Impakt Protective’s Shockbox sensors attach to helmets to monitor impacts from youth hockey, football, snow sports and lacrosse.

Ray Megill, a coach and league founder of Performance Lacrosse in Rockville, Md., will be one of the first to bring Brain Sentry’s device to his team this summer. Given its affordability, ease of use and ability to improve safety, he hopes that in the near future, sensors become a standard part of all kinds of youth sports.

He said there may be pushback from coaches that don’t want to face pressure to remove their star players from games. But, he added, “at that point, you have to look at the coach and ask ‘are you more concerned about winning or the child’s safety?”