What do football superstars Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Adrian Peterson all have in common? Last year they wore helmets that provided the poorest protection against concussions in all the NFL.
"You're only as protected as well as the worst helmet that's out there."
A Dangerous Policy
Football helmets are rated on a one-star to five-star system based on how well they do the job of protecting the player. The league has allowed players to use their favorites, regardless of the star rating.
The Oxford-trained neuroscientist Ray Colello conducted a serious analysis of just how much the protection can vary between each level of star rating. Colello and his team of graduate students sifted through two seasons of game video to identify which players were wearing what helmets. There was "a really good correlation with position, but the correlation is much more significant based on age."
"The average player in the NFL is 26.6 years old, but the average age of a player wearing a one-star helmet is 34. And for anyone who knows football, that's ancient," the brain doc says. "Then for our two-star helmet, it's 32; and for a three-star helmet it's 29." Players were sticking with the helmets they were familiar with in college, despite the fact that equipment had improved considerably in recent years.
"You're only as protected as well as the worst helmet that's out there," Colello explains. Offering an auto analogy, he says, "It's like, if you run into the back of a Pinto, even if you are in a five-star Mercedes, that gas tank may still explode and you are still going to die."
It's one thing for a player to take a risk at scrambling his own brain; it's another matter to put a teammate or opponent at needless risk. Colello published his analysis early last year and the NFL moved quickly to ban the worst performing helmets, starting next season.
Some of the 14 players using the soon-to-be-banned helmets, like Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, made the switch to a five-star helmet at the start of training camp and stayed with it. Adrian Peterson wore a one-star helmet throughout the season.
Tom Brady tried but just couldn't get comfortable with a new bonnet and, after losing a few games, switched back to his old one in the middle of the season; he says he's going to ask the league to "grandfather in" his old helmet so he can continue to use it.
As for Colello, he's only just getting started. The brain doc has a much bigger vision for the future of football safety. He wants to prevent concussions from even occurring in the first place by creating an innovative new helmet that's unlike anything the league has ever seen.
Oxford-trained neuroscientist Ray Colello is on a mission to make football safer.
(Photo credit: VCU public affairs)
"A Force Field" of Protection
His inspiration was serendipitous; he was at home watching a football game on TV when Denver Bronco's receiver Wes Welker was hit, lay flat on the field with a concussion, and was carted off. As a commercial flickered on the screen, he ambled into the kitchen for another beer. "What those guys need is a force field protecting them," he thought to himself.
Like so many households, the refrigerator door was festooned with magnets holding his kids' school work in place. And in that eureka moment the idea popped into his head: "Maybe the repulsive force of magnets can put a break on an impact before it even occurs." Colello has spent the last few years trying to turn his concept into reality.
Newton's laws of physics – mass and speed – play out graphically in a concussion. The sudden stop of a helmet-to-helmet collision can shake the brain back and forth inside the skull like beans in a maraca. Dried beans stand up to the impact, making their distinctive musical sound; living brain tissue is much softer and not nearly so percussive. The resulting damage is a concussion.
The risk of that occurring is greater than you might think. Researchers using accelerometers inside helmets have determined that a typical college football player experiences about 600 helmet-to-helmet contacts during a season of practice and games. Each hit generates a split second peak g-force of 20 to 150 within the helmet and the odds of one causing a concussion increase sharply over 100 gs of force.
By comparison, astronauts typically experience a maximum sustained 3gs during lift off and most humans will black out around 9gs, which is why fighter pilots wear special pressure suits to counter the effects.
"It stretches the time line of impact quite dramatically. In fact in most instances, it doesn't even hit."
The NFL's fastest player, Chris Johnson, can run 19.3 mph. A collision at that speed "produces 120gs worth of force," Colello explains. "But if you can extend that time of impact by just 5 milliseconds (from 12 to 17msec) you'll shift that g-force down to 84. There is a very good chance that he won't suffer a concussion."
The neuroscientist dived into learning all he could about the physics magnets. It turns out that the most powerful commercially available magnet is an alloy made of neodymium, iron, and boron. The elements can be mixed and glued together in any shape and then an electric current is run through to make it magnetic; the direction of the current establishes the north-south poles.
A 1-pound neodymium magnet can repulse 600 times its own weight, even though the magnetic field extends less than an inch. That means it can push back a magnet inside another helmet but not affect the brain.
Crash Testing the Magnets
Colello couldn't wait to see if his idea panned out. With blessing from his wife to use their credit card, he purchased some neodymium magnets and jury-rigged experiments at home.
The reinforced plastics used in football helmets don't affect the magnetic field. And the small magnets stopped weights on gym equipment that were dropped from various heights. "It stretches the time line of impact quite dramatically. In fact in most instances, it doesn't even hit," says Colello. "We are dramatically shifting the curve" of impact.
Virginia Commonwealth University stepped in with a $50,000 innovation grant to support the next research steps. The professor ordered magnets custom-designed to fit the curvature of space inside the front and sides of existing football helmets. That makes it impossible to install them the wrong way, and ensures the magnets' poles will always repel and not attract. It adds about a pound and a half to the weight of the helmet.
a) The brain in a helmet. b) Placing the magnet. c) Measuring the impact of a helmet-to-helmet collision. d) How magnets reduce the force of impact.
(Courtesy Ray Colello)
Colello rented crash test dummy heads crammed with accelerometers and found that the magnets performed equally well at slowing collisions when fixed to a pendulum in a test that approximated a helmet and head hitting a similarly equipped helmet. It impressively reduced the force of contact.
The NFL was looking for outside-the-box thinking to prevent concussions. It was intrigued by Colello's approach and two years ago invited him to submit materials for review. To be fair to all entrants, the league proposed to subject all entries to the same standard crush test to see how well each performed in lessening impact. The only trouble was, Colello's approach was designed to avoid collisions, not lessen their impact. The test wouldn't have been a valid evaluation and he withdrew from consideration.
But Colello's work caught the attention of Stefan Duma, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who developed the five-star rating system for football helmets.
"In theory it makes sense to use [the magnets] to slow down or reduce acceleration, that's logical," says Duma. He believes current helmet technology is nearing "the end of the physics barrier; you can only absorb so much energy in so much space," so the field is ripe for new approaches to improve helmet technology.
However, one of Duma's concerns is whether magnets "are feasible from a weight standpoint." Most helmets today weigh between two and four pounds, and a sufficiently powerful magnet might add too much weight. One possibility is using an electromagnet, which potentially could be lighter and more powerful, particularly if the power supply could be carried lower in the body, say in the shoulder pads.
Colello says his lab tests are promising enough that the concept needs to be tried out on the playing field. "We need to make enough helmets for two teams to play each other in a regulation-style game and measure the impact forces that are generated on each, and see if there is a significant reduction." He is waiting to hear from the National Institutes of Health on a grant proposal to take that next step toward dramatically reducing the risk of concussions in the NFL.
Just five milliseconds could do it.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby