The NFL is about to jump into a big partnership that could cause a big change in detecting concussions.
The New York Times reported that the league is working on a partnership with General Electric to develop imaging technology and materials to protect the brain.
The four-year initiative, which is expected to begin in March with at least $50 million from the league and G.E., is the result of a late October conversation between Commissioner Roger Goodell and G.E.’s chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, a former offensive tackle at Dartmouth. When Goodell explained his idea of getting leading companies in innovation to join the N.F.L. to accelerate research, Immelt said he wanted to help.
After years of insisting there was no link between head injuries sustained on the field and long-term cognitive impairment, the N.F.L. has altered rules, fined and suspended players who hit opponents in the head and contributed millions of dollars for the study of head injuries.
“Is this their way of defending themselves with this cloud over the sport? I’d be lying if I told you it had nothing to do with it,” Kevin Guskiewicz, the founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said of the initiative.
The news came during the same week in which the NFL said it planned to add independent neurologists to the sidelines next season.
The expectation is that new technologies could spring from the collaboration within a few years.
“If they were to be putting more focus on technology for concussion management, that’s obviously a good thing,” said Stefan Duma, who teaches at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and created the STAR helmet ratings system. “I would expect that to bear fruits. We’re definitely not 10 years away. I would expect in a two- to five-year window you could have some real advances in imaging’s ability to see concussions. Helmets are the same way.”
How might this technology work?
The hope is that the machines could forecast who might sustain concussions, and then show in real time the degree of brain injury and recovery. That could provide guidance on when it is safe to return players to games.
As players have become more aware of concussions, the number of reported concussions has risen slightly, according to the N.F.L.’s injury surveillance system. In 2009, there were 199 reported concussions throughout the preseason and regular season. In 2012, there were 217. Those numbers do not account for the hundreds of smaller, subconcussive hits that players take.
“Technology in neurology is fairly advanced,” said John Dineen, the president and chief executive of G.E. Healthcare. “We can see a number of different pathologies. But in the area of trauma, we still have work to do. We have to be able to improve the technology, we’ve got to specialize these cameras and lenses. If we’re going to solve this problem, we have to see it.”
– Bill Bradley, contributing editor