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Can a helmet sensor help prevent brain trauma in athletes?

As we learn more about the effects of concussions and sports-related head trauma, parents, coaches and medical professionals are debating how to keep players safe. Some are looking to technology, like a device worn under the helmet that shows the force of impact after a fall or collision. Hari Sreenivasan reports as part of our Breakthroughs series.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: the risk of concussions in sports and trying to lower those odds.

    San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland shocked the pro football world yesterday by announcing his decision to retire from the game after a strong rookie season. Borland, who is 24 years old and was expected to earn more than a half-million dollars next season, told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” he was concerned about head trauma from repeated hits.

  • CHRIS BORLAND, Former NFL Player:

    It was just kind of the realization. I had just started my professional career. And am I going to go down this road?  Am I going to commit the prime of my life to something that could ultimately be detrimental to my health?  And that just kind of triggered my thinking and changed the way I viewed the risks.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Borland becomes the most prominent player to leave the game in his prime based on those risks.

    But worries are also growing among many parents of younger athletes and kids playing sports. It turns out researchers are looking into whether electronics can make sports safer.

    Hari Sreenivasan reports on new innovations for brain safety on the playing field. It’s part of our continuing series on Breakthroughs.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Contact sports like hockey can be brutal; 19-year-old Oliver Bech-Hansen describes getting hit so hard, he lost his memory.

  • OLIVER BECH-HANSEN:

    I just couldn’t remember everything. It took me a couple weeks before I finally — I slowly started remembering things that happened.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    As the spotlight on concussions and head trauma intensifies, parents, coaches, and medical professionals are debating how to keep players safe, and some are looking to technology.

    The Jersey Wildcats, a league of 16-to-20-year-olds, have been experimenting with a head impact device donated by Reebok. The device, called Checklight, is worn under the helmet and features an LED light on the back of the neck that flashes if a player takes a big blow.

    Paul Litchfield from Reebok explains.

  • PAUL LITCHFIELD, Reebok Advanced Concepts:

    Checklight will actually fit inside of the skullcap, and it — it slides inside a little sleeve, and the device is in here, and the electronics are right here behind your ear. We can actually identify nine locations around the head, and identify the force of impact from those nine locations.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The impact device can be worn under any type of sports helmet, but it will not determine if a player has suffered a concussion.

  • PAUL LITCHFIELD:

    It doesn’t indicate anything about your level of injury. It indicates your level of impact. And by doing that, it’s up to the athlete, the coach, their players, their teammates to just make sure you check in, and you say, hey, you OK?  And you do an assessment.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Wildcats coach Justin Stanlick calls it an extra pair of eyes.

  • JUSTIN STANLICK, Head Coach, Jersey Wildcats:

    There’s so much going on, you can be distracted, or hung up on one point, turn around, and before you know it, your player is down, and you’re not exactly sure what happened. And, you know, 12 players on the ice, it’s very easy to miss something.

  • PAUL LITCHFIELD:

    It’s simple. It’s like a traffic signal, green, yellow, red, and at a traffic signal, green is go, yellow is caution, red is stop.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Player Eddie Pavlini.

  • EDDIE PAVLINI:

    I had a little hit to the head, but I didn’t even realize. Like, I didn’t think anything of it until one of my buddies told me that I had a yellow light on the back. I was like, oh, wow.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Neurosurgeon Robert Cantu is an expert in traumatic brain injury among athletes.

  • ROBERT CANTU, Traumatic Brain Injury Expert:

    Those violent shakings of the brain that don’t necessarily produce symptoms right away that are recognizable as concussions, if taken over a long period of time, can lead to later life neurodegenerative problems.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Checklight is not the only impact sensor.

  • ROBERT CANTU:

    In the last couple of years, there’s been a plethora of different sensors that have come out. Some of them are within a helmet. Some of them are on headbands. Some of them are on chin straps. Some of them are even in mouth guards.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Reebok device has field experience behind it. Former NFL player Isaiah Kacyvenski oversees consumer business at MC10, the electronics company that helped create Checklight.

    In the NFL, Kacyvenski suffered seven concussions and upon retirement became a vocal advocate for head trauma safety. He was one of the first NFL players to agree to donate his brain for medical research.

  • ISAIAH KACYVENSKI, Former NFL Player:

    I knew that in my heart and my mind that the sport needs to get safer in a lot of different ways.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Kacyvenski says Checklight gives both players and coaches an objective measurement.

  • ISAIAH KACYVENSKI:

    It takes it out of the hands of the athletes in a lot of different ways. At times, when I was hit, I always — I didn’t necessarily want to pull myself out of the game. I didn’t want to look soft. It felt almost like I was being less of a man if I admitted to being hit in the head.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Eddie Pavlini sees the same scenario play out on the ice.

  • EDDIE PAVLINI:

    A lot of times, kids might just not say anything and try to play through it, and they will only get checked out if the coach notices it and says — and calls the trainer over.

  • JUSTIN STANLICK:

    You can ask a 17-year-old, how are you feeling, and have him checked out by an EMT, but sometimes they’re not always truthful because they don’t want to come out of a game.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Litchfield says his team conducted 15,000 drop tests to arrive at the right measurements.

  • PAUL LITCHFIELD:

    We actually chose values that are based of off the National Safety Transportation Board, a thing called the HIC values, which is head injury criteria values.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But while Dr. Cantu is supportive of the awareness Checklight and other sensors bring, he is cautious about their research.

  • ROBERT CANTU:

    The various different sensor devices that are in a lot of different products right now have only been validated within their own institutions, within their own companies. They haven’t been validated by independent third-party laboratory.

    That’s a big concern for me, because we really desperately need to know the accuracy of devices.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How hard a player is hit isn’t always the most relevant information. Often, it’s the second or third hard hit that can cause the most damage.

  • ROBERT CANTU:

    I don’t think it’s a silver bullet in terms of trying to prevent concussion or recognizing concussion. I think it’s a tool in terms of allowing you at least to know how many hits a youngster has had.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Isaiah Kacyvenski believes he is already feeling the damage from multiple hits to the head. Kacyvenski attended Harvard as an undergraduate, then played seven years in the NFL. When he returned to Harvard for his master’s in business, he found it much harder to study.

  • ISAIAH KACYVENSKI:

    I couldn’t go through and just churn through five hours at a time, and crank through. I had to take bites, go over it again, take bites, go over it again, take bites, which is tough, because, you know, I had to recalibrate, reconfigure the way I did things.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Still a lover of the sport, Kacyvenski will start coaching his 11-year-old son, Isaiah Jr., in tackle football next fall. He says he is focused on keeping the game safe with proper techniques and Checklight.

    I’m Hari Sreenivasan with the PBS NewsHour.

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