MIT graduates are on a quest to make sports-related head injuries history with better technology

September 2, 2014

Ex-Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Jordan Gross, above, suffered a concussion in 2008. The player retired earlier this year to begin a media career. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Concussions aren’t new, but expanding research outlining how dangerous they are is. So it’s no wonder head injuries have become part of the mainstream conversation when it comes to sports. The White House held a “concussion summit” in May, which was followed more recently by a safety conference attended by FIFA and the NFL. But perhaps the most telling sign of the times has come from the parents of the next generation of sports professionals; they filed a class-action lawsuit against FIFA in an attempt to get the soccer organization to change its concussion protocol last week.

Instead of waiting for rule-setting organizations like FIFA or the NFL to change the way they play, however, two graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are hoping to put more power in the players’ hands — or heads, rather. They’ve developed a device called the Jolt Sensor that they claim can immediately signify whether its wearer has had a potentially dangerous head impact. The device won’t diagnose a concussion, but it can signal to its wearer and the coach whether an evaluation from a medical professional is needed. Per the device’s Kickstarter page:

The Jolt Sensor is a small clip that can easily attach to any piece of head-worn athletic equipment. Whether you wear a helmet, a headband, goggles, or headgear, it’ll work. The sensor enclosure has a soft rounded silicone rubber exterior to prevent injury and is fully waterproofed to stand up to dirt, dust, sweat and rain. It has a multi-week battery life and is rechargeable via a standard micro USB port.

When an athlete’s head accelerates in a potentially dangerous way, the sensor vibrates to alert the athlete. It also connects wirelessly to parents’ and coaches’ smartphones (Android & iOS), using Bluetooth Low Energy, to alert them on the sidelines. With a range of over 100 yards, the sensor stays connected anywhere on the field.

The device’s developers Ben Harvatine and Seth Berg began working on the concept in 2011, and have since created a design ready to be mass produced, a feat for which they are seeking money via the crowdsourcing Web site Kickstarter.

But while Harvatine’s and Berg’s design may be the sleekest, it is not the only sensor that claims to monitor head impacts. Brain Sentry, a company in Bethesda, developed its own, which lights up if the wearer is hit with the amount of force that could lead to a concussion. It’s already being produced, but it’s rarely used. That’s because it’s still slightly controversial.

A high school football coach in Loudoun County may have been fired for allowing the use of Brain Sentry devices on the field. After the school declined their use, citing the sensors’ lack of county certification, the football team’s booster club went ahead and purchased them for the players anyway, The Washington Post’s Tom Jackman reports. But when the Loudoun Valley High School’s administration learned the team was using the devices, they demanded that the players with the sensors on their helmets sit out. That’s when, Jackman reports, Coach Danny McGrath took a stand and demanded all his players take off their helmets, and around 3:30 p.m. last Friday, McGrath was fired.

Harvatine and Berg recognize that certification is important if they want to see their sensor in action. (Harvatine first thought of the device after sustaining a concussion of his own while on the wrestling team, the company’s literature states.)

“We’ve been working closely with medical advisers to be certain that we pursue the proper certification [procedures],” Harvatine said, noting that the company would first concentrate on certifying the device for sports such as wrestling that don’t require helmets. One reason for that is because the process to certification is less complicated than navigating the fine print manufacturers attached their helmets, that usually void safety guarantees if the helmet is altered. Also of note, Harvatine said, helmet manufacturers are hesitant to allow external devices on their helmets because they are aiming to develop sensor technologies of their own, Harvartine points out. They simply don’t want the competition.

The Jolt sensor costs $80 to $100 at the moment, but the aim is to make the price point “as affordable as possible,” Harvatine said, adding he envisions the technology being used by all socioeconomic classes in sports that range in variety from hockey to the roller derby.

Marissa Payne writes for The Early Lead, a fast-breaking sports blog, where she focuses on what she calls the “cultural anthropological” side of sports, aka “mostly the fun stuff.” She is also an avid WWE fan.
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Marissa Payne · September 2, 2014