This Helmet Will Save Football. Actually, Probably Not.


PALO ALTO, Calif. — Walk between a colonnade of palm bushes and push via a door at Stanford University and discover a sorcerer’s apprentice lab the place potential Ph.D. kinds beaver away at bioengineering applications.

This is CamLab, the place David Camarillo, a nationally revered bioengineer and former school soccer tight finish, and his college students are in pursuit of that American El Dorado: They search a helmet that can make it secure to play sort out soccer.

Dr. Camarillo, 40, insisted they might quickly crack the case.

He tapped at his keyboard and on the display, watched a simulation of his new helmet shock absorber, and whispered: “This could reduce concussions by at least 75 percent. Theoretically, this is the holy grail.”

That may be an unintentionally apt metaphor. No one, in any case, has discovered Jesus’ chalice. After years of analysis, just a few scientists imagine they’ll nonetheless make such a helmet. Many who research this area say a extra subtle helmet could even show harmful.

Their worry is based in fact. When a 310-pound man who runs a 40-yard dash in five seconds flat slams into a running back, that runner’s neck and head accelerate, and the brain and its fibers twist and stretch and tear. A particularly rough hit could jar open the blood-brain barrier, the semipermeable wall that prevents bacterial pathogens from entering the brain.

The danger isn’t limited to the largest and fastest people. In fact, smaller repeated hits — as opposed to spectacular collisions — are the real danger. Football, brain experts say, can represent imminent danger to the brain of a child, a teenager or an adult. No advance in helmet making, they say, is likely to materially change that.

Willy Moss, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has worked with Dr. Goldstein and the Department of Defense, seeking to develop better helmets for players in contact sports and soldiers in war zones. He has also consulted with Dr. Camarillo.

He is open to a breakthrough in helmet technology, though a thin smile spoke to profound doubt.

“You can make whatever changes you want, but in the end it’s all physics,” he said. “Talking of new and better buffers is like Goldilocks and the three foams.”

Stefan Duma, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, runs a respected helmet lab that evaluates and rates them, and he has tracked the breadth of the technological leap. More sophisticated helmets and foams have reduced the acceleration of the head by about 50 percent, and all of the companies, he said, are engaged in research to develop new technologies. But he is not convinced that great advances remain.

C.T.E. remains an ever-present danger no matter what a player wears on his head. “Not getting hit in the head at all is the best thing for you,” he said.

Dr. Camarillo grew up in a seaside agricultural town across the Santa Cruz Mountains from Silicon Valley. He played linebacker and tight end in high school, but at Princeton, in the late 1990s, he concentrated on tight end. All the banging in linebackers practice proved brutal, and he developed fierce migraines. “I was in serious pain,” he said.

He loves the sport and grows poetic as he describes a team camaraderie that cut across race and class. He is loath to see that culture wither. With a background in biomechanics and biophysics, he worked in surgical robotics before launching his own lab at Stanford in 2012; he is focused on understanding and preventing traumatic brain injury. He has worked on developing safer football equipment with a biomechanical approach, using gyroscopes and measuring the rate of rotation of the head upon impact.

He works there with a neuroscientist, Dr. Michael Zeineh, and a pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Gerald Grant, who has devoted years of work to concussions.

“We have to know the mechanisms of injury, biologically, and what are the tolerance levels,” he said. “How much is too much?”

He developed a computerized mouth guard. It was hoped that mouth guards might lessen the impact of hits and lead to fewer concussions. That has not panned out, but the high-tech mouth guards have helped scientists chart the nature of damaging blows. “Every person reacts different to taking a traumatic physical hit,” he said.

Dr. Camarillo’s hope for the future of helmets, which other scientists at other institutions are pursuing as well, relies on two of the oldest earthly substances: water and oil. His team inserts one of these fluids into helmet columns and uses its nearly unmatched ability to absorb the massive energy load of a football hit, and thus reduce the effect of the hit on the head and brain.

Challenges remain, not the least of which is that water is heavy, even in small quantities; no player wants to carry a water bed on his head.

Dr. Camarillo said that his team seemed to have found a way to engineer around that challenge, that it could produce something no heavier than a bike helmet.

“It is predicting less than one concussion per football season for a team,” he said. “Maybe it’s too good to be true and maybe it is, but theoretically? It looks possible.”

His findings so far are drawn from computer simulations, and no matter how sophisticated they are, that’s not the same as a good field test.

In the battle over football and brain health, Dr. Camarillo portrays himself as occupying the sensible center, an agnostic caught between ravening ideologues. There are those who deny that football damages the brain, and, in his telling, there is the C.T.E., sky-is-falling camp, which sees no choice other than to end football.

“It has become so charged it’s almost political,” he said.

He raised a doubting eyebrow about aspects of the expansive C.T.E. research of those at Boston University and Carnegie Mellon. He argued those groundbreaking experiments — the ones that have shown that repeated and less powerful hits can produce C.T.E. in mice — were less conclusive than they appeared. “What is a concussion in a rodent?” he said. “Can we so clearly define it in a human? No.”

I spoke to a half-dozen neuroscientists from four universities, and all said that the science of using mice as analogues for humans is robust and that evidence that shows repeated hits damage the brain keeps accumulating.

I shared Dr. Camarillo’s views on the drawbacks of experimenting on mice with Dr. Goldstein of Boston University. He sighed and fell silent on the phone line before speaking.

“He can believe whatever he wants, but it’s a misinformed reading of the science,” he said. “We get identical neuropathology in our animal models that we have seen in humans.”

The two sides in this debate as often seem to speak different languages. The N.F.L. and the N.C.A.A. and Dr. Camarillo talk of an overarching goal: preventing concussions, which they regard as synonymous with the brain damage caused by football. Camarillo works independently for now of the helmet manufacturers, although he hopes that one day soon that might be different.

Researchers at Boston University and Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere focus on C.T.E. as the greatest threat and insist the culprit is not the concussion — as terrible as that injury can be. Rather, it’s thousands of cumulative hits over many years. So yes, taking a freight train hit from a pro linebacker is dangerous — but being repeatedly whacked and knocked to the ground thousands of times by players in Pop Warner, middle school and high school puts you at more risk for C.T.E.

The average college and professional player undergoes 700 to 1,000 hits each year, rattling and twisting and tearing at the brain inside the skull. “I can say with great certainty that there is no correlation between a single concussion and C.T.E.,” Dr. Goldstein said. “It’s the accumulation of hits.”

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Rochester collaborated on a recent study in which they put sensors in the helmets of 38 Division III college players and measured hits in practices and games. Only two players sustained concussions that season. But season-ending tests found evidence of structural damage and change in the brains of two-thirds of the players.

“It’s woven into every play,” said Bradford Mahon, a cognitive neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon.

His partner, Adnan Hirad of the University of Rochester, held out the possibility that a better helmet might help in the margins. But that’s it. “It’s a dangerous sport, and we can’t mince words about a technology. There’s no El Dorado.”

I asked Dr. Goldstein what sort of technological breakthrough would protect a player against C.T.E.? He peered at me. “A force field that keeps a player from blocking or tackling you,” he said.

He did not smile.

I mentioned to Dr. Camarillo this upwelling of skepticism. He nodded with the confidence of a true believer. He and several of these scientists know each other and plan to collaborate on research. If his proposed helmet reduces concussions, he said, logically it might reduce the force of subconcussive hits that cause long-term damage to the brain. In this way, he said, it’s analogous less to a cigarette filter than to technological changes that have made surviving car crashes progressively safer.

I mentioned that claim to Dr. Goldstein and his head started to wag. He insisted the evidence on C.T.E. and the toll taken by even small hits did not support Dr. Camarillo’s optimism. “This is hope-and-a-prayer science,” he said.

Evidence could take years, at the very least, to accumulate. For now, there is no way to diagnose C.T.E. in the living; it can be found only with an autopsy.

And yet Dr. Camarillo is not deterred. “I hope this is like the seatbelt,” he said of his new helmet design, with a jauntiness that would warm the heart of an N.F.L. executive. “And the day will come when you think it’s just crazy we didn’t have it sooner.”



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