Scientists invented a material that could help prevent brain trauma for athletes and soldiers

When a football player’s head slams against the ground or another player’s helmet, there’s a good chance that the force of that collision could disrupt the brain’s function, causing a concussion or traumatic brain injury.

These injuries aren’t limited to football, of course. Brain injuries happen in all kinds of situations, from skiing to biking to combat.

The CDC says that traumatic brain injuries are a serious public health problem that can cause permanent disability or death, and there were at least 2.5 million of these injuries in 2010 in the US.

And one of the biggest problems with these injuries is that they may not be immediately apparent, especially if an athlete or soldier was wearing a helmet, leaving no visual signs of the injury. If someone thinks they are fine and gets back onto the field before it’s safe and then sustains further head trauma, the risk of serious damage goes up significantly.

A new material developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania could change that by making serious impacts obvious — and this material could become a key part of helmets in the future. The new polymer film, which could potentially be included as a layer inside a piece of headgear, changes colour after a crash, as shown in the video below.

While other types of pressure-sensitive materials exist, this material is designed to clearly show just how much force it was subjected to.

As Dr. Shu Yang, who led the research team, explained while presenting her work at the American Chemical Society national meeting on August 17, the new material is made up of crystals that change their structure in response to an impact, which causes the colour change. They’re able to illustrate a greater range of force than other existing pressure-sensitive materials.

Polymer material force colour changeAmerican Chemical Society/YouTubeWhile there’s a lot going on in this image, the easiest thing to pay attention is the word ‘Penn’ at the bottom. The more force (measured in mN, or milliNewtons) that the material is subjected to, the darker it turns.

In fact — relevant to both athletes and soldiers — the material responds to force “right in the range of a blast injury or concussion,” Yang says in a press release.

Something like this wouldn’t solve all concerns about head injuries in sports. For football players, researchers suspect that subconcussive impacts that happen over the course of a career could add up to cause permanent brain damage. And knowing that someone got a concussion isn’t as good as preventing it in the first place. Furthermore, the material will require further testing to see how accurate it really is and how feasible implementing it in helmets might be.

But if medical teams responding after a particularly intense hit or an explosion-related blast injury can see exactly how much of an impact a person sustained, they may be better able to provide the care that person needs. And they could keep that person away from the action until they have had time to recover.

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