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Probing concussion’s complexities with football mouthguards and a whole lot of computer time

Concussion is a serious public health problem, but researchers don't fully understand how they happen or how to prevent them. Now, researchers find, concussion is more complex than previously thought.

Getting whacked in the head is a serious public health problem: around 2.8 million people end up in the hospital every year with a concussion or other traumatic brain injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly half a million of those are kids and adolescents.

Yet researchers aren't sure exactly what leads to concussion — that is, what kinds of blows cause them or what's going on in the brain that leads to injury. It's thought that blows that rotate the head might cause more damage than others, and there are signs that concussion is related to damage to the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the left and right halves of our brains. But beyond that, science doesn't actually know all that much.

Hoping to remedy that, researchers in the lab of David Camarillo, PhD, an assistant professor of bioengineering, drew on data on head impacts they'd collected from football players' mouthguards, which they'd outfitted with devices to track head impacts. Data on 187 such impacts was fed into a computer simulation of the brain, from which the researchers could infer how the brain moved, spun, and jiggled after various different kinds of blows, and in particular, what kinds of motion made the difference between an unpleasant experience and a concussion or worse.

The research was reported in Physicial Review Letters.

The results? Well, it's complicated — quite a bit more complicated than anyone had previously thought. I describe it, including how the new research could one day help prevent concussion in my Stanford News article.

The benefits of the an increased understanding of how the brain moves and what movements are damaging could be substantial: "We can design better helmets, we can devise technologies that can do onsite diagnostics, for example in football and potentially make sideline decisions in real time," co-lead author Mehmet Kurt, a former Stanford postdoctoral fellow, told me.

Photo by Kevin Jones

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