Berkeley researchers developing football helmet to prevent brain injuries

Robert Knight/Courtesy

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Brainguard, a startup founded by Berkeley scientists, is in the process of developing a helmet designed to prevent brain injuries by mitigating the rotational impact forces that are experienced in sports including football.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have documented 2.8 million emergency room visits for traumatic brain injury, or TBI, in the United States, according to Brainguard’s site. Examples of TBI include chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is known to affect football players, and diffuse axonal injury. Robert Knight, a campus professor of psychology and neuroscience, had the idea to create a helmet with a novel design after seeing head injury cases so severe that people could not return to their work.

In 2012, Knight and his coworkers Ram Gurumoorthy and A. K. Pradeep, who earned their Ph.D.s from UC Berkeley, started collaborating on Brainguard with a mission to “enable exceptional helmet performance that protects the brain” and prevent TBI damage without getting in the way of athletic performance.

According to Knight, “twisting and turning forces” are unaddressed by traditional helmets.

“In a boxing match, the people can be hit directly in the face many times and they never go down,” Knight said. “But if a punch comes from the side, you see the person drop, which is an example of twisting force.”

Brainguard, whose research facility officially opened in 2015, created a helmet with two shells: an inner layer that is attached to the head and an outer layer that is connected with struts. According to Knight, standard helmets utilize plenty of padding to reduce head-on collision damage. Comparatively, the struts in the Brainguard helmet allow the outer layer to twist and turn, dissipating the rotational forces before they reach the inner shell.

Knight described several testing methods used to develop the helmet including dropping helmets at various angles and conducting helmet-to-helmet tests. Brainguard uses sensors to assess the helmet against surfaces such as turf, cement and ice to compare data between its helmet and standard helmets.

“As a whole, we are always looking at ways we can make sports safer for all who participate,” campus associate athletics director Herb Benenson said in an email.

He added that because new equipment comes out every year, the campus athletics department works with the sports medicine staff to decide which helmets to use.

Brainguard is “in queue” to have its helmet certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. Although the company initially focused on developing football helmets, Knight said Brainguard is looking to expand prototypes to ice hockey, cycling and off-roading.

“I think this is a tremendously exciting endeavor,” campus psychology professor Silvia Bunge said in an email. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. . . . It’s great to hear that [Knight’s] company has been hard at work and making it a reality.”

Contact Andreana Chou at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AndreanaChou.