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A new smart foam in football helmets could help detect concussions

Smartfoam BYU
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Earlier this week, it was discovered that former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez suffered from one of the most severe forms of CTE, a degenerative brain disease that seems all too common among football players. While the sport is one of the most popular in the U.S., the risks associated with the game are becoming increasingly apparent, and as such, scientists are looking for ways to mitigate its dangers. The latest innovation comes from Brigham Young University in Utah, where mechanical engineering Ph.D. student Jake Merrell is leading an effort to measure football-related head injuries in real time.

Along with a team of BYU researchers, Merrell has developed and tested a nano composite smartfoam meant to be placed within football helmets and pads to detect the impact of tackles. Using electrical signals, the foam measures the effects of a hit, and sends this data wirelessly to a tablet or similar mobile device.

To be precise, whenever the smartfoam is compressed (as it would be on impact), it rubs against nickel nano-particles, resulting in a static electric charge. A conductive electrode in the foam collects that charge, and it is then measured by a microcomputer, and sent to a computer or smart device. This way, coaches, trainers, and medical professionals can see in real time if a player has been hit, and just how hard.

“The standard measurement systems on the market today directly measure the acceleration, but just measuring the acceleration is not enough and can even be erroneous,” Merrell noted in a statement. “Our XOnano smartfoam sensors measure much more than just acceleration, which we see as a vital key to better diagnose head injuries.”

As per research published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, the foam is capable of measuring acceleration, impact energy, and impact velocity. Taken together, these factors help experts discern the severity and location of impact, and impressively, can do so with 90 percent accuracy. So why does this matter? Thus far, there has been no way to truly monitor the energy and velocity of impact, which are key factors in determining a football player’s risk of concussion, and perhaps, more severe brain damage later down the line.

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