STANFORD, Calif. (McClatchy) — Stanford researchers have made headway in understanding the causes of concussions that could lead to improvements in helmet design and onsite detection at sporting events.
In a study published in Physical Review Letters the bioengineers found concussions and other mild head injuries seem to occur when an area deep in the brain shakes more rapidly and intensely than surrounding parts of the organ.
“We are pinpointing the weak point in the brain during impact with the biomechanical and physical understanding,” said Mehmet Kurt, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
Determining what movement causes the most damage during a hit could change the way manufacturers design protective headgear for football and other sports as well as assisting physicians and trainers in making better sideline decisions whether to let an athlete return to a game after getting hit in the head.
“Linking the type blow that you get and the type of injury or no injury you get is the next thing to look at,” Kurt said. “That is where real-time diagnostics would be possible.”
Fellow researcher Kaveh Laksari, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Arizona, said early diagnosis also could help with treatment and recovery.
The scientists began the project as post-doctorate students working with Stanford bioengineer David Camarillo, who developed mouthguards football players wear to measure the force of the hits they take. Camarillo discussed similar findings two years ago in a TEDx Talk at Stanford.
The researchers used computer simulated data collected over the years that involved 190 impacts on the football field. The data was collected from the Stanford football team and from some NFL players.
Scientists want to determine what causes head injuries that some physicians say can lead to long-term neurological problems such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
The study is the latest research examining the impact of traumatic head injuries and sports.
Boston University physicians published findings in January showing signs of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, without evidence of concussions. The Boston study published in the journal Brain supported previous projects that had shown non-concussive repetitive hits to the head can lead to CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disorder.
The Stanford project found a deep part of the brain called the corpus callosum shakes more rapidly than surrounding areas in cases of concussions. The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerve fibers that connect the left side and right side of the brain.
The scientists hypothesize that impact causes the fibers to move faster than surrounding areas of the brain and then leads to a shearing of tissue that results in injury.
“If we understand the biomechanical reason of concussions, where the brain stretches, that’s how we should be designing our helmets,” Kurt said.
The researchers want to validate the findings but brain research is complicated because it is difficult to collect data. They hope to continue the investigation with animal and/or human brains donated for medical research.
“There is nothing like getting data from actual experiments,” Laksari said.
Scientists also hope to make breakthroughs with technological advances. They envision a time when Camarillo’s mouthguards could be equipped with another microchip that collects data in real time on how much the brain moves.
“Imagine we coupled that with a particular player himself,” Kurt said. “Imagine that we coupled that with the science that we know when the brain fails mechanically. Then the coach can get information immediately after an impact.”
But Kurt and Laksari don’t expect to answer concussion questions alone.
“You have an aspect of neuroscience, you have an aspect of biology, you have the aspect of mechanical science,” Kurt said. “This is the only way we can tackle this.”
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