Research tracks high school football brain injury

TAMPA - Warming up for practice, Wharton High School's football team looks like any other across the country.

That is, until ten of the players take off their helmets to reveal brain sensors strapped to their heads.

"Most people feel very secure putting a very hard helmet on their head, and feel like they've done enough to play, but that is not the case," explained Dr. Joe Gutmann.

Dr. Gutmann and his colleague, John Lloyd, are partnering with USF to study high school football player brain waves. They're building on past research they've conducted that shows helmets typically protect skulls against fracture, but do little to prevent the internal rotation of the brain, the basis of a concussion.

"A skull fracture would heal.  A hidden brain injury may not heal as well," Lloyd said.  "Unfortunately [helmets] don't do very much to limit the risk of concussion."

Over the last few decades, helmets have grown heavier and larger to protect players, but that's created a new problem.

"You put a helmet on that weighs about 40% of their head," Lloyd said. "So, now their necks are not strong enough to support that."

Previous research on brain waves focused on work inside laboratories, due to the difficulty of real-time EEG monitoring on the field. The sensors developed by Gutmann and Lloyd isolate data that tracks movement of the brain from "artifacts" like movement of hair or the helmet. They plan to use the data they collect at Wharton to develop a new sensor that tracks real-time concussions.

"We have a responsibility to make the game safer so they can continue to play," Lloyd said.

Of the helmets they've tested in their own laboratory, Gutmann and Lloyd only found about a 60% rate of protection. That was the best. The worst offered no protection against concussions at all.

Ultimately, they hope their work will influence better helmet manufacturing, or potentially even change the rules of the game altogether.

"Better helmets, better safety regulations, because the current practice or play is not enough to protect players," Dr. Gutmann said.

Aaron Danzy, an offensive tackle at Wharton and one of the players participating in the study, eagerly agreed to wear the sensors. He admits sometimes he's scared to play, given what he's heard about the long-term effects of brain injury, like early onset dementia.

"You're not really expecting to get hit that hard. So, you start to get dizzy, but it's just a momentary effect," he said.  "It's my brain. It's my body. I feel like I should be protected by the sport I like to play and love to play."

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