Could a neck-worn device protect the brains of athletes and soldiers against traumatic injury? That’s the promise of technology that researchers are beginning to test in humans after several years of animal studies.
The idea behind such a “collar,” which was originally inspired by studies of animals that tolerate repeated blows to the head, is to slightly increase the amount of blood in the brain and thereby cushion it in a way no helmet can, says Julian Bailes, a co-inventor of the technology, chairman of neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem, and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Illinois.
The new type a lightweight and pressurized neck collar may help prevent mild concussions during sports, according to the developers of the device.
The collar, which weighs four to five ounces — is designed to exert a minimal amount of continual pressure on the large neck veins that carry blood from the heart to the head, and back again.
That slight pressure, which is similar to the pressure of a tie knot, triggers a slight drop in the amount of blood that flows out of the head. That leaves a little extra fluid in the brain, which helps cushion it in case of impact, the researchers said.
The end result, said Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Gregory Myer, is the production of “a natural bubble-wrap for our brain.”
Speaking at a news briefing on the new technology this week in New York City, Myer said, “It’s the same principle behind seatbelts and airbags,” both of which serve to significantly lower the g-force associated with sudden impacts.
“With helmets, we’ve effectively reduced skull fractures and lacerations. That’s what helmets are designed to do,” said Myer, director of research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s division of sports medicine.
But, “they can’t prevent all forms of concussions. That’s not what they’re designed to do,” he added.
“Regardless of how big or how robust the helmet is, there’s still room for a brain in collision to move inside [the skull], and a helmet can’t mitigate that,” explained Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of NorthShore University HealthSystem’s department of neurosurgery, and co-director of its Neurological Institute in Glenview, Ill.
It’s called “brain slosh,” Bailes said. It happens when a traumatic blow to the head causes the brain to hit the inner skull.
But, some animals have developed ways of coping with blunt head collisions — such as fighting rams, woodpeckers, and diving birds. Initial animal research found that backing up a small amount of blood into an animal’s head resulted in a dramatic drop in concussion risk, the researchers explained.
Researchers have also found that when high school athletes and National Football League players competed in high-altitude environments, without the collar, the greater blood flow to the brain that naturally occurs in such environments appears to reduce concussion risk by 30 percent.
In one study of Cincinnati-area high school athletes, those wearing the collar were largely protected against the kind of brain injury that can translate into devastating and long-lasting health complications, the researchers said. Those complications include: unrelenting headaches; impaired sleep; loss of appetite and energy; depressed moods; and incapacitating difficulties with thinking and memory.
One sports-medicine doctor not involved with the device called the collar “promising,” but said more research is needed.
SOURCES – Technology Review, Gregory Myer, Ph.D., director of research, division of sports medicine, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital; Julian Bailes, M.D., chairman, department of neurosurgery, and co-director, NorthShore University HealthSystem Neurological Institute, and neurological consultant, National Football League; Mark Messier, former National Hockey League player; Robert Glatter, M.D., director of sports medicine and traumatic brain injury, department of emergency medicine, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, and a former sideline physician, New York Jets football team; Performance Sports Group (PSG) news conference, New York City, Nov. 16, 2015