By Ken Reed

If someone could find a truly evidence-based way to protect the brains of athletes in heavy contact sports like football, hockey and lacrosse it would be worth multiple millions of dollars.

Football is the most popular sport in the United States and players, coaches and fans alike don’t want to give it up. But they would like the game to be safer for the human brain. That wish has spurred the development of a bunch of new helmets in the hope a magical helmet of sorts might be developed to lower the risk of concussions and brain injuries sustained from sub-concussive impact.

But it seems like a fool’s errand since nobody can figure out a way to put a helmet on the brain inside the skull. Helmets, no matter how high-tech, can’t protect the brain that’s floating around unprotected inside. Blows to the head cause the brain to crash into the side of the skull, like Jello bouncing off the sides of a bowl when shaken.

Dr. Lee Goldstein, a psychiatrist and researcher with the CTE Center at Boston University — which is a leading research institution for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive blows to the brain — when asked what sort of technological breakthrough would protect a player against CTE says, without smiling, “A force field that keeps a player from blocking or tackling you.”

Nevertheless, scientists and entrepreneurs keep trying. The latest device which supposedly can lower the risk of brain injury in sports is called a Q-Collar. The device is a lightweight, cushioned collar that slips around the lower neck and is snug but not too tight as to cause discomfort. Supposedly, it restricts the flow of blood from the head and gives the brain an extra layer of cushioning. The theory goes that the device can keep an extra teaspoon — yes, a teaspoon — of blood in the brain and that teaspoon of blood will keep the brain more still inside the skull, thus lessening the chances of brain injury.

Multiple scientists and doctors doubt the claims that Q-Collar’s manufacturer, Q30 Innovations, is making.

“They’re finding stuff, but it feels like noise,” says Matt Tenan, a program director at West Virginia University’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute. He and other skeptics don’t accept the theory at the heart of the device that compressing the jugular vein in the neck keeps additional blood in the skull and that extra blood provides a cushion around the brain.

“None of it makes sense,” says Dr. Martha Shenton, a professor of psychiatry and radiology at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Shenton is an expert in the type of high-tech brain imaging that Q30 Innovations has relied on.

The only magic helmet might be no helmet at all. If football players didn’t wear the hard plastic helmets they do, they would be much less likely to lead with their heads like human spears. Some people have actually begun touting the removal of helmets from the game.

One such proponent of no helmets, columnist Oliver Connolly, wrote:

“Taking the helmets off would change that dynamic. Players would naturally alter their style, but the general aesthetics of the game would be preserved. NFL coaches have preached about rugby-style tackling for years. In a helmet-free world that wouldn’t be a fun niche, it would be a necessity.

“Studies are currently underway into knock-on effects of such a drastic move, headed by the University of New Hampshire. In one season, head impacts decreased 30% by the end of the season in training groups that performed tackling drills without a helmet compared to those who completed the drills with a helmet.

“Removing helmets is not about ruining the game fans love. It’s about preserving the game and the players who play it. The current changes have been small potatoes, nice things to stick in a social media campaign or spin to TV executives or parents. Concussions and brain trauma will never be entirely removed from football – or any contact sport – but there is a radical idea sitting under the league’s nose. And it’s time to start taking it seriously.”

Sure it sounds silly. But if you truly would like to see fewer brain injuries, as well as fewer sub-concussive blows to the head which can lead to CTE, then it might not be so silly after all.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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