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.
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.