Tracking brain injury in youth football players

In two separate studies, researchers are using smart helmets and a voice-analyzing app to study the risk of brain injury in our largest group of football players: athletes ages 6 to 18.

football cupcakes for a kid's birthday party.jpg
In two separate studies, researchers are using smart helmets and a voice-analyzing app to study brain injury risk in young football players.

It was announced last month that the NFL will pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit involving thousands of its former players over problems related to head trauma. While the concern is growing, little is known about how a season of head hits affects the youngest players -- ages 6 to 18. Numbering nearly 4.5 million, they’re the largest group of football athletes.

Using accelerometer-equipped helmets, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center recorded more than 16,000 impacts over the 2012-2013 season at two youth teams and one high school team. They gave the players neurological tests and brain scans to look for before-and-after changes.

  • The risk of concussion accumulated over a season was calculated from the frequency and size of all impacts on each player.
  • Most of the hits were below the range of impact associated with a concussion... but when you look at the total risk sustained over a season, those risks can be the mathematical equivalent of two to three concussions.

Using these data, they hope to develop a tool that identifies when a player has been hit hard enough (or repeatedly enough) to risk a concussion or other serious injuries.

Meanwhile, University of Notre Dame researchers are planning to test out a voice-analysis app (which runs on a tablet) on 1,000 students in 20 different schools in the Midwest.

Head injuries change speech characteristics, with negative effects on vowel production in particular. The program pulls out the vowel segment from a set of predetermined words, then analyzes that sound for changes that may indicate a brain injury.

The researchers initially tested the app with 125 collegiate boxers:

  • Before each bout, they'd say the numbers one through nine as a baseline. After boxing, they were recorded saying the same words again.
  • By analyzing several acoustic features of the vowel sounds, including their pitch, the app was able to identify all nine players who were later diagnosed with concussion.

[Technology Review]

Image: Kid's Birthday Parties via Flickr

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