Doctor: Football helmet sensors need more research

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — When the Indiana All-Star team takes the field Friday night, the football players will have something added to their helmets — a sensor.

The sensor is supposed to track the impact of potential concussions. I-Team 8 has found the sensors may be giving a false sense of security. With the concussion crisis growing, so too are companies with new gadgets to find answers. But is the new technology helping?

Every time football players take hits, they risk concussions. At least eight companies have come up with new sensors for the helmets to track the impact, or g-force. Brain Sentry’s is a peel and stick sensor that goes on the back of the helmet, lighting up red if the hit is too hard.

“This is not a diagnostic device, but we want to give the tools to the athletic trainers, to the coaches and to the parents to know what’s going on with your kid’s brain,” explained Neal Lieberman of Brain Sentry.

Brain Sentry donated sensors for Friday nights’ All-Star game and this past week of practice. One of the coaches is Jake Gilbert of Westfield High School.

“I believe that we’re trying to be cutting edge, not just from a technology standpoint, but how we teach tackling and using everything we can to keep our kids safe,” Gilbert said.

Brain Sentry isn’t alone in creating sensors, so one group is trying to determine which are effective. The Sports Legacy Institute recently announced the Hit Count Certification Program to evaluate and certify the sensors sold. But I-Team 8 found a potential conflict of interest. Chris Nowinski of Sports Legacy Institute was, according to his own website, a paid consultant for one of the sensor companies, MC10. He was also college roommates with the company founder. Is it conflict or just two former football stars trying to stop the concussion crisis? Nowinski and MC10′s founder did not respond to I-Team 8′s questions.

Experts are also working to determine if sensors outside the helmet are accurate. For year, Indy Car has tracked the g-force of drivers hitting the wall. Indy Cars are 2,000-pound missiles traveling a football field and a half per second. In 2010 at the St. Petersburg Indy Car race, the late Dan Wheldon showed I-Team 8 and the U.S. Army the accelerometers. They are sensors put inside his ear, not his helmet.

“I’ve been involved in impacts before that definitely daze you, and they have a good understanding because they have the impact G from the ear sensor,” explained Wheldon in 2010.

Researchers told I-Team 8 then it was important to have the sensor inside his ear to get a more accurate reading. The helmet is designed to take the impact and disperse some of the force before it gets to the brain. So the g-force that lights up a sensor outside the helmet may not be the g-force that hits the brain.

“Just because it didn’t light up, or it didn’t register a hard blow — it doesn’t mean they didn’t have a concussion.”— Dr. Tom McAllister, IU School of Medicine

I-Team 8 took the issue to a leading neuroscience researcher at the IU School of Medicine.

“To my knowledge, we don’t know which one is the most accurate,” said Dr. Tom McAllister, who for years used high tech sensors to study sports concussions. “Just because it didn’t light up, or it didn’t register a hard blow — it doesn’t mean they didn’t have a concussion.”

He says there is a false sense of security.

“I think that people who are looking to the sensors to make the diagnosis of concussion — that’s a mistake in my view,” McAllister said.

McAllister’s research finds athlete’s can be hurt not only from one big hit, but also from smaller hits that may not light up the sensor on the helmet.

“We need a whole lot more research and sort of a better understanding of what is actually being measured, and how reliable it is before we place all of our confidence in that kind of technology,” McAllister said.

Trainers confirm to I-Team 8 the sensors never lit up during this week of practice for the Indiana All-Star game. Riddell, which has its own sensor inside their helmets, has voided the warranty on the All-Star Riddell helmets this week. Click here and here for more information. Riddell says any after-market device voids their helmet warranty and their NOCSAE certification of the helmet. But other helmet manufacturers say they welcome new technology. Check with your helmet manufacturer before you spend money on any new device. Brain Sentry says there is no reason to notify players because there is no issue. Brain Sentry says they will fully cover the helmet warranty if it is damaged as a result of the sensor being attached.

I-Team 8 continues asking questions about the lack of a youth helmet standard in football. Tune in Monday at 6 p.m. on WISH-TV for an I-Team 8 special report on the subject.

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