This Is Your Brain On Football

Football players take hits with forces as high as 100 Gs—a measurement of acceleration felt as weight. Bodies are jarred. Brains slosh inside skulls. And the more the brain sloshes, the higher the likelihood of concussion.
Even the NFL’s recent rule changes and upgrades to helmet designs have failed to show a measurable reduction in concussion rates across the league. Word of the ever-increasing number of lawsuits levied against the league by former players with conditions linked to chronic-recurrent concussions has sent parents fleeing from the game. Between 2010 and 2012, Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, saw a 9.5 percent drop in participation—23,612 players. Some schools have even banned tag at recess, citing safety concerns.
“Where does it stop?” asks Gregory Myer, director of research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s Division of Sports Medicine. “Sports are really the only thing that spontaneously actuates our children or gets them physically active or playing.” Myer points to physical inactivity as a killer—a contributing factor to myriad diseases—and asks if in attempting to protect our kids by making them even more sedentary, will we subject them to other illnesses? For him, ensuring that kids can keep playing—safely—means finding ways to help prevent concussions in the first place. And it starts with the woodpecker.
The bird earned its name by hammering trees at roughly 1,200 Gs. They also evolved a connection between their tongues and a muscle that cuts off jugular outflow of blood from the head. Myer hypothesizes that an increase in blood around the brain limits slosh, employing nature’s internal airbags. There could be a parallel for humans, too. At higher altitudes with less ambient oxygen, our bodies compensate with extra blood flow to the head. Working with David Smith, a traumatic brain injury researcher at Children’s, Myer found that high school students playing at higher altitudes had 30 percent fewer concussions than players at lower altitudes. In a follow-up study, they found that players had 32 percent fewer concussions at NFL stadiums at altitudes of 644 feet or higher.
Of course, we can’t send all of our kids up a mountain to play football. This is why Myer and his team are developing a device players can wear that mimics the physiologic protections of the woodpecker—the same protections humans enjoy at higher altitudes. Think of it as a helmet inside your head. Jugular outflow is slightly impeded, causing increased cerebral blood flow that fills reserve areas—nothing more than what humans experience while lying down—creating what Myer describes as a “tighter fit of your brain in your skull.”
If Myer’s research is successful, he claims it will “change how car seats are made. It’s going to change how your seat belt is made.” And it may keep your kids safer out on the field, too.

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