NFL-Army Collaborative Research on Concussions Yields Initial Results

The Army Research Lab's "tethering" technology won a $500,000 award from the NFL's Head Health Challenge

Brain wave scanning computer algorithms and flexible "tethers" which harden upon impact are several cutting-edge technologies being explored through an NFL-Army collaborative effort to better diagnose and treat concussions from both combat and football collisions. 

Unambiguous scientific determination of the existence of a concussion could allow soldiers to return to combat and NFL players to return to play without needing to follow certain protocol, receive an MRI or wait 24 hours to see if symptoms worsen to indicate a more serious problem.

One such technology being explored, created by a firm called BrainScope, uses software and computer algorithms to quickly analyze electrical activity in the brain, or brain waves, to determine if a mild concussion has occurred, industry officials explained. 

In 2014, the Army Research Laboratory won a $500,000 research grant from the NFL’s Head Health Challenge to develop an innovative "tethering" technology.

Called “rate-actuated tethers,” the Army-developed innovation uses tethers which stretch and relax at low speeds but dramatically harden when pulled quickly, an Army statement said.

The head protection concept attaches the head to the shoulders, allowing for free range of motion under normal conditions and stiffening to protect the head from injury upon impact, the service explains.

“They came up with a rather novel idea. A tether system that could slow the acceleration or movement upon impact. They are looking for ways to use that technology in the military as well as applications in contact sports so that the head and the torso are tethered together and deter some of the forces that cause concussions,” Jeff Miller, NFL Vice President of Health and Safety, told Scout Warrior in an interview. 

The technology could, in theory, connect Army helmets to the body or connect NFL helmets to shoulder pads – dramatically reducing impact to the head upon collision by virtue of the hardening tethers.

“The technology tethers the helmet to the shoulder pads. Upon impact those tethers and the material in those tethers harden based on the force and therefore limit the amount of rotation that the head could make. We are very interested in that,” Miller added.

U.S. Army

Also, the Army head of Science and Technology told Scout Warrior the service is in the early stages of exploring a shear-thickening fluid which could allow for full mobility and then instantly harden upon impact.

“It is shear-thickening fluid. With liquid armor, if you hit something fast it can’t stretch the tether because the molecules in the material don’t slide past each other very well,” Mary Miller, former Deputy Assistant Secretary, Research and Technology, told Scout Warrior in an interview last year.

The material could provide flexibility and movement for soldiers while offering them ballistic protection against bullets, shrapnel and other threats by instantaneously hardening. It is the kind of material which, in theory, could potentially be used in NFL helmets as well.

In recent years, the NFL and the U.S. Army have been making substantial progress on a collaborative effort to better diagnose, prevent and treat concussions, head injuries and traumatic brain injury, Army and NFL officials told Scout Warrior.

The NFL has been leading an effort called the “Head Health Challenge,” a three-stage effort to support research and innovation aimed at better protecting NFL players from head injuries. The $25 million effort is a collaborative venture involving Army participation and corporate sponsorship from General Electric and Under Armour, NFL officials told Scout Warrior.

First launched in 2013, the Head Health Challenge has been assessing research proposals and awarding millions in grants to promising innovations. Since 2012, the Army and the NFL have been working on a cooperative Memorandum of Understanding first established by former Army Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The Head Health Challenge is broken down into three distinct phases designed to identify or better diagnose concussions, treat them more successfully and prevent them from happening, and the third challenge is aimed at using various innovations to mitigate the impact to the head resulting from a collision.

Army experts familiar with combat-related head and brain injuries have been involved throughout the ongoing Head Health Challenge effort, in some cases helping to evaluate proposals.

“I don’t want to ever compare the NFL with what goes on on the battlefield, but there are similarities,” Jeff Miller said.  “We have established a good and open dialogue with the military. When we meet with them, we share some of the research we are doing. We're sharing as much as we can with them.”

The mutual interest is, in many respects, self-evident. The NFL naturally seeks to reduce the incidents of concussions on the football field, treat them successfully and more quickly diagnose them when they happen.  Such developments would of course better protect players from more serious long-term injury while also allowing them to more quickly return to a game in some instances if it is determined with certainty that there is no concussion. NFL officials tell Scout Warrior they are extremely committed to this effort and optimistic about the results it is beginning to yield.

USA Today

Meanwhile, the NFL and a group of retired players are still immersed in legal disputes resulting from a lawsuit filed against the NFL in 2014.  Specifics of a  $675 million legal settlement between the NFL and the retired NFL players are still being determined.   

More than 4,500 former NFL players sued the NFL for its handling of concussion-related issues; they include former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon.

The settlement is designed to last at least 65 years and cover retirees who develop Lou Gehrig's disease and other neurological problems resulting from head injuries during play. The parameters of the settlement and the extent to which additional dollars may be available, however, are still a matter of legal dispute.

At the same time, the Army is all too familiar with concussions, head injuries and traumatic brain injuries.

Army officials say in some cases soldiers will experience concussions due to being in proximity to a blast, explosion or roadside bomb detonation and not know they have suffered a head injury for days or even weeks after the fact.

As a result, establishing clear scientific metrics and methods for rapidly determining the existence of concussions is a major impetus behind the various research initiatives.

“Currently concussions are based on subjective diagnosis based on signs and symptoms - which immediately may not show up for a period of 24 hours. There are many ideas we have like blood tests or eye movement challenges which may indicate a concussion. There are numerous research initiatives around initially diagnosing concussions,” Miller said.

NFL Concussion Protocols

As the Head Health Challenge evolves, NFL officials say the league is continuing to revise and adjust its concussion protocols.

“We revise our concussion protocols annually with our players association. We make tweaks to them from year to year. Criteria for identifying them have broadened. We have an athletic trainer who sits up in the skybox who can call down to the medical staff  if there is a player on the field who looks like he needs a little bit of help,” Miller said.

Miller also added that a new provision introduced this year will allow officials in the skybox to call down to a referee to stop the game if there is a player who looks like he needs help after suffering a collision.

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