Polymer Could Reduce Brain Injuries


A polymer developed by a biomechanical engineer who also happens to be a football fan could help reduce the number and severity of concussions caused by vicious collisions on the gridiron.

Football head injuries have been getting more attention lately. The National Football League recently tentatively agreed to pay professional football players $765 million for health problems that can be linked to concussions. Commissioners of college football conferences are adopting concussion research and prevention programs.

By all intents and purposes, the cranium is a pretty good protector of the brain. The three-pound organ is surrounded by hard shell immersed in spinal fluid.

It’s “the best shock-absorbing system you could ever design,” says the scientist, Vijay Gupta, a professor at UCLA. Nevertheless, the human head is not designed to withstand the force from a collision with a hard-hitting linebacker.

So Gupta combined his love for the game with his expertise in materials science, mechanical engineering, and bioengineering to develop a polymer that can diminish the force of a head-to-heat hit, reports UCLA Today. “If I cut down the level of force with my material, that’s going to help concussion reduction,” Gupta says.

Gupta started by doing some math. Looking at published research about brain injuries and videos of football collisions, Gupta measured how fast players were running and calculated the G-force of impacts and established a concussion probability curve. “Above 90 Gs, you have an almost 90 percent probability of a concussion,” Gupta says.

To have a helmet with more absorption ability and a minimum change in design, Gupta added a two-millimeter-thick wafer filled with a polymer designed to enhance foam padding. In tests with various G forces, the polymer yielded promising absorption-rate results. UCLA Today explains further on what Gupta’s team did next:

They’ve tried different mixes of the polymer to alter its rigidity and viscoelasticity, as well as varying its thickness and where they placed the polymer layers in the helmets. Gupta and his team have been able to achieve up to a 25 percent reduction in the force a person would feel. This translates to a similar reduction in the probability of getting a concussion.

“This is a remarkable reduction given that we are adding such a small amount of material that essentially leaves the current helmet unaltered,” Gupta says. “If the helmet is altered too much, the concern is that it might affect how players are forced to play and they might not want to wear it.”

The polymer could have military applications as well. Explosive blasts produce shockwaves. Gupta thinks that adding the polymer to military helmets could help reduce traumatic brain injuries on the battlefield.

Source: “Making football helmets safer to prevent concussions,” UCLA Today, 8/22/13
Image by Johntex.