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.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."