Four million. That’s the high end of the estimated number of sports-related concussions that occur in the United States each year, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mississippi State University researchers from across the Bagley School of Engineering are working to erase that number. By studying animals known for effectively managing head trauma – like big horn rams and woodpeckers – the team is identifying ways to reduce the impact of head collisions on the brain and surrounding tissue.
Their research has led to the development of tools that provide the kind of data needed to build more effective protective equipment and show how the human head responds to the force of a collision, down to the smallest atom. These cutting-edge tools have expanded the team’s understanding of where, when and how injuries occur.
The team designed a virtual model of the human head that allowed the group to see that most brain injuries don’t come from an initial hit, but rather from the stress waves it causes. These waves move back and forth through the tissue as they dissipate, leaving damage in their wake. And while conventional helmets help absorb some of the initial impact, they don’t do anything to stop the resulting shock waves.
Research into two of Mother Nature’s hardest heads — those of woodpeckers and rams — led to the discovery that the unique composition of a woodpecker’s beak and bone prevents the bird from sustaining brain injury while absorbing shocks up to 10 times greater than those withstood by football players.
Similarly, the spiral nature of rams’ horns seems to provide an escape route for shock waves.
“We learned that rams’ horns actually serve to direct the impact of a collision away from the brain,” says Horstemeyer.
The group’s design uses advanced materials like composite and titanium to construct the helmets’ outer protective shells and facemasks. These materials offer more strength and durability and also help reduce overall weight, which leads to fewer injuries and makes helmets more comfortable for extended wear.
But the biggest design changes actually affect the inner lining of the helmet.
“Using information from our research, we replaced traditional helmet lining with a foam made of microstructures similar to those found in rams’ horns,” says Horstemeyer. “Tests show our helmet is more likely to reduce concussions than helmets worn today.”