The Virginia Tech Hokies football team represented the first athletes in the world to test a new brain-injury monitoring system by utilizing a uniquely altered helmets software developed in the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics.
The center’s expanding research program also includes projects that are leading to better seatbelts for pregnant drivers and curbing airbag-induced eye injuries.
The Hokies continue to participate in this ongoing helmet-monitoring research project directed at reducing the number of traumatic brain injuries among athletes in all sports in which the athletes wear helmets.
Stefan Duma and his research team perform sophisticated real-time monitoring and clinical evaluation of impacts to football players’ heads by using a head impact telemetry system (HITS) manufactured by SIMBEX, LLC, a research and product-development company, and unique software developed in the Center for Injury Biomechanics .
Often when a player suffers a concussion, the injury is undetected, and he continues playing. Now, with the ability to identify impacts that can lead to concussions, the athletes can be taken out of games and receive treatment.
Duma, who is a professor in the College of Engineering and director of the center, is also working with Dr. Gunnar Brolinson, head football team physician and professor at the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Mike Goforth, team trainer with Virginia Tech Sports Medicine on the system.
Each player typically receives 10 to 50 impacts per game and some of those would equal the impact in a serious car crash.
During most Hokie games and practices, the helmets of 20 players are equipped with six accelerators—sensors that record impacts to the helmets in terms of G (gravity) forces. The sensors transmit real-time data to a sideline computer system that keeps track of a full range of head-impact information for each player.
“There’s a good deal of debate on the issue of concussions,” Duma says. “We currently use a peak of 80 G’s to signal the team physician of the potential for a concussion, but we use that relatively low level to be on the safe side. The specific level of acceleration that causes a concussion depends on the tolerance of the individual player, the direction of the impact, and the player’s history of head injuries.”
Duma and Steve Rowson, a Virginia Tech biomedical engineering doctoral student, are working on the next phase of the monitoring system. Rowson is developing a prototype system that will use 12 accelerometers, instead of the current six, to measure rotational as well as linear accelerations.
“There’s great potential for prevention of sports-related brain injuries, if we can learn more about what happens to the brain at the moment of impact,” Duma says. “By collecting and evaluating a body of data, we can redefine injury limits for the brain. Also, in order to design better sports headgear, we need precise data on what types of mechanical loads and accelerations cause brain injuries.”
Duma created the world’s first computer model of a pregnant driver. “It started in 2001 when my wife was pregnant with our daughter,” he says. “If a pregnant driver is in a car accident, there are a number of increased injury risks.”
Using his wife as the human model, Duma developed the computer model simulating a uterus and fetus at seven-and-a-half months. Automakers are now using the model to test new restraint designs for pregnant drivers.
Duma also has established and contributed to an eye-injury research program at Virginia Tech. It is the nation's largest research program for airbag-induced eye injuries and one of the largest for all types of eye injuries.
His group developed the first computer model of the human eye that can accurately predict the probability of eye injury under any type of impact, as well as the first fluid-filled synthetic eye equipped with sensors that make it possible for precise replication of the effects of impacts on the human eye.
Three college teams and two high school teams are now using the monitoring system.
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