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This is your brain on… roller coasters?

How risky are roller coasters for the human brain? A team of Stanford engineers rode roller coasters for science, hoping to find out.

Are roller coasters bad for you? I really hope not, because ever since my first ride on Disneyland's Matterhorn when I was 7, I've been an aficionado.

Mind you, I have very specific requirements: I want no loop-de-loops, since any coaster that flips you upside down goes so fast that the whole ride is a blurry waste; no splashing through yucky water; and a LOT of rattling and noise. Old-fashioned wooden roller coasters that sound as though they might fall apart at any moment? Yes, please! With my little sister screaming her lungs out beside me? Even better!

So when I recently stumbled across a Stanford pilot study examining whether roller coasters could cause brain injuries, I read it with intense interest, wondering if my love of rattly, lurchy coasters might ever lead to a concussion. There have been sporadic reports of brain injuries from coasters, the researchers note.

The authors, from Stanford's Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering, devised a brief study in which they outfitted two adult male subjects with mouth guards equipped to measure head movement. The mouth guards have previously been used for studies of athletes in high-impact sports such as football.

The two subjects each took three roller coaster rides at an amusement park, seated side-by-side to reduce potential variation in the data. For comparison, one subject also completed 14 soccer headers, and both subjects went for a 3-minute jog, all while wearing the mouth guards. The scientists used mathematical models to ask whether the movements they measured during these activities could cause problems for the brain.

In general, the team found that roller coaster rides were less likely to cause harm than soccer headers, but exerted more force on the brain than jogging. They saw a lot of variation between the two subjects, suggesting that the dangers of roller coasters may not be the same for everyone. The study concludes:

Our results suggest that the brain experiences surface displacements and local strains comparable with those experienced in mild sports impacts. Although we only piloted the analysis for two study subjects and three representative rides, peak principal strains and strain rates displayed a notable inter-subject and inter-ride variability... this suggests that injury susceptibility can vary greatly on an individual basis; testing rides on multiple subjects could more rigorously ensure safety.

As for me, I think I'll keep enjoying roller coaster rides in moderation. And if the researchers need more study subjects, I'd be happy to volunteer.

Photo by Jeremy Thompson

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