Virginia Tech is leading a $3.3 million, multi-center, five-year study that will track head impact exposure in children — the largest and most comprehensive biomedical study of youth football players to date.
The potential impact of the study is significant: More than 3 million youth football players across the nation comprise 75 percent of all U.S. football players.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, researchers will track on-field head impacts and accelerations using sensors installed in hundreds of players’ helmets. A new addition to the study will be mouth guards, which also will have sensors installed in them. Players at six schools in three states also will receive neuropsychology testing.
Leading the study is Stefan Duma, head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, part of the College of Engineering. Duma and his multi-university team will focus on six teams of 9- and 10-year-old players in three states, following each team during a five-year period, as well as the players themselves until they reach the age of 14.
“This is the largest coordinated youth study with the most advanced combination of instrumentation, clinical and neuropsychological testing,” said Duma, one of the earliest pioneers to study the biomechanics of football player head injuries and creator of a groundbreaking safety ratings system for football and hockey helmets.
“Collecting this data during the next five years will allow for evidence-based decisions across a range of applications, including improved clinical detection techniques as well as a solid foundation for our helmet rating programs and offer ways potentially to improve youth football helmet design,” added Duma. “We will work with Pop Warner and other national governing bodies to develop improved practice strategies.”
Participants will be instrumented with two high-tech sensor systems, one located inside the helmet and the other in the front part of the player’s mouthpiece, each measuring all head impacts and rotations during all practices and games. Data will be transmitted instantly to researchers near the sidelines, monitoring all impact levels. All practices and games will be videotaped to match sensor data with actual visuals of on-field impacts. Participants will undergo neurocognitive examinations off-field, involving computerized tests, balance scores of postural stability, and survey data.
“This study will provide important translational outcomes including an improved understanding of the rotational kinematics during football head impacts in the youth population,” said Steve Rowson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech, who has worked with Duma for the past 10 years. “This can lead to improved injury risk functions that could be used across all sports as well as automobile safety applications.”
Virginia Tech researchers will monitor and collect data from two local Blacksburg recreational teams. Long-time study collaborators Wake Forest School of Medicine, part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, and Brown University in Rhode Island will each monitor and collect data from two youth football teams in their respective region. The two teams at Wake Forest School of Medicine are lead by Joel Stitzel and Jill Urban, with additional funding from the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma. At Brown University, Trey Crisco and Beth Wilcox lead the research efforts for their two teams.
Also leading the research team are Jonathan Beckwith and Rick Greenwald, founder of New Hampshire-based technology firm Simbex and Art Maerlender of the University of Nebraska Lincoln, who will head neuropsychology testing and collection. As with earlier studies involving scores of Virginia Tech athletes, this study also will involve Mike Goforth, head athletic trainer, and Brett Griesemer, assistant trainer, both with Virginia Tech Athletics; Gunnar Brolinson, professor of sports medicine and head team doctor, and Marc Rogers, an associate professor of sports medicine, both with the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine; and Eric Smith of the Department of Statistics with the College of Science at Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech biomedical engineering doctoral students working on the study are Megan Bland of State College, Pennsylvania; Eamon Campolettano of Hicksville, New York; Jaclyn Press of Doylestown, Pennsylvania; Jake Smith of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and David Sproule of Houghton, Michigan.
“Five years from now, the hope is that we have a very strong understanding of the severity and frequency of impacts for youth football,” said Campolettano, who joined Duma and Rowson’s research team earlier this year. “Further, we can use this data to design improved testing methodologies for youth football helmets.”
Simbex is supporting the Head Impact Telemetry System – or HITS, for short – instrumentation that is part of the Elyria, Ohio-based Riddell’s Sideling Response System that records head impact exposure. HITS is an accelerometer array mounted against a player’s head, inside the helmet, that will be used to quantify linear and rotational accelerations. The system builds on technology previously used to measure head impacts of Virginia Tech football players since 2003. Instrumented mouth guards purchased from a second private firm, Kirkland, Washington-based I1 Biometrics will be custom fit to each player. Called the Vector, the mouth guard uses accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure linear and rotational accelerations. Both HITS and Vector transmit data wirelessly in real-time to researchers on the sidelines.
Coordinating statistical analysis for the study, Virginia Tech’s Eric Smith added, “It is quite natural for statisticians to be part of projects such as this one as statisticians are partly ‘data engineers.’ We think a lot about the data collection as a process and work to ensure the quality of the data.”
The grant is awarded using funds from the National Institutes of Health’s Bioengineering Research Partnership (BRP). This is the second BRP for this research team, and it expands on a previous award from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The first BRP focused on collegiate football and hockey and resulted in more than 100 technical publications and presentations.
Duma and his research team have garnered international recognition during the past decade for creating a ratings system for adult football helmets, as well as a similar system for hockey helmets introduced this year. Additionally, Duma is part of a $30 million national effort to combat concussions among college athletes and active military personnel. The three-year project involves male and female NCAA student-athletes participating in football, women’s soccer, men’s soccer, and women’s lacrosse.
Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science provided support in developing the successful proposal submission to the National Institutes of Health, said Duma.