Military Helping the NFL to Combat Brain Injury

Army soldier-protection experts at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have received a $500,000 grant from the NFL, Under Armour and GE’s Head Health Challenge II initiative that will assist its research to protect against brain injury.

Head Health Challenge II awards up to $10 million to encourage researchers to identify and mitigate the mechanics and consequences of brain trauma.

“Because there is so much overlap between our concerns with soldier brain injury and the NFL’s interest in maintaining the head health of athletes, this partnership is of mutual benefit,” said Eric Wetzel, Ph.D., who is the technical area manager for Materials for Soldier Protection at ARL.

ARL has been a leader in the development of new materials and designs for improved ballistic helmets. In this new program, ARL scientists will explore a new paradigm for head protection: “rate-actuated tethers.”

These tethers stretch and relax easily at low speeds, but provide dramatically increased resistance force when pulled quickly. A paper describing these tethers was recently published in the journal, Smart Materials and Structures.

The ARL’s head protection concept calls for using these rate-actuated tethers to couple the head to the body. Voluntary head motion is not restricted but rapid, uncontrolled, jerking head motions are constrained.

Wetzel envisioned the concept for using the novel rate-actuated tethers for mitigating head accelerations in collaboration with head-protection expert Shawn Walsh, D. Eng., and computational modeling expert Thomas Plaisted, Ph.D. There will be a half dozen researchers assisting the multidisciplinary team over the course of the next year.

“The Army is focused on exploiting game-changing technology and the art-of-the-possible in support of the military force of 2025 and beyond,” said Thomas Russell, ARL’s director.

ARL’s head-protection advances demonstrate the importance of investing in science and technology to ensure not only the Army’s readiness, but for the greater good of the nation, he said.

“This is a perfect example of creating technology for the soldier that could provide a huge benefit for another group: athletes on a playing field. It is exactly the dual-use benefit we want in the technology- transfer arena,” said Tom Mulkern, ARL’s technology-transfer office.

The researchers will work aggressively over the next 12 months to turn their basic concept into a suitable prototype of a protection device that is functional and robust.

Alan Gilbert, director of global government and nongovernmental-organization strategy for GE Healthymagination, said, “This challenge is a call to action to advance head-health research and innovation. The breakthrough ideas submitted will help us better understand brain injuries and the brain overall. We are excited to see the award going to the ARL to advance its important work in gear that could mitigate the impact of head injuries for soldiers and athletes.

“Groundbreaking research, like the rate-dependent tethers from the Army Research Lab are going to protect soldiers, athletes and others from head injuries,” said Jeff Miller, NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy.

“It is exactly this type of disruptive creativity that, along with GE and Under Armour, the NFL is seeking. This innovation, and others like them, will have a profound impact.”

For more information about the Head Health Challenge II, visit their website.

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