Inspired by the woodpecker’s physiology, a new wearable device has shown to prevent neurological changes from concussions in young athletes.
A technology aimed at preventing traumatic brain injury (TBI) is moving closer to public availability in the U.S. following recently published studies further demonstrating its efficacy. In two separate trials—one involving high school soccer players and another with SWAT team soldiers in blast training—subjects wearing the Q-Collar device showed no significant changes in brain activity, in sharp contrast with the non-collar-wearing subjects.
The path leading the collar’s developers and researchers to this point began in an unusual place.
“This physician kept emailing me and said he had been studying woodpeckers and figured out a way to prevent concussions,” says Greg Myer, Ph.D., FACSM, certified strength and conditioning specialist, director of research and the Human Performance Laboratory at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center’s Division of Sports Medicine.
His curiosity peaked, Myer agreed to meet with the physician behind the emails. It was David Smith, M.D., a clinician and inventor with a novel idea: replicating the physiology of woodpeckers to protect people from brain trauma. Fast forward six years where Smith is a visiting research scientist at Cincinnati Children’s, working with Myer on TBI projects.
The image "A" shows the jugular vein and intracranial venous system. Image "B" shows the collar as worn and "C" is an illustration of the collar as tested. (Myer GD, Yuan W, Barber Foss KD, et al. Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 15 June 2016 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096134)
The truth about brain trauma
Myer has long been aware of the dangers of brain trauma for children in sports and says that while helmets are critical, they can’t fully protect children from brain injuries. Helmets protect the skull but are unable to keep the brain from moving around inside the skull—otherwise known as brain slosh. This movement inside the skull is the culprit for TBI, which affects the brain’s white matter and results in symptoms ranging from headaches to sleep disruption and cognitive impairment.
The facts about brain trauma
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 4 million sports and recreation-related concussions occur every year in the U.S. Children are the most affected.
- This number underestimates the total occurrences of TBI, since concussions represent only a subset of these brain injuries, and the CDC says many individuals suffering from mild or moderate TBI do not seek medical attention.
- While relatively little is known about the long-term effects of these brain injuries, the World Health Organization projects that TBI will soon be the third-leading cause of global disease.
Inspiration from an unlikely source
A study participant wears the Q-Collar.
The woodpecker’s physiology makes it an unusual source to prevent brain injuries. The bird’s long tongue wraps around its head, compressing the jugular vein and restricting blood flow out of the skull. As a result, the brain has less room to move inside the skull.
Smith and his partners developed a collar that replicated this effect on humans. The collar mildly compresses the human jugular vein in a similar fashion, increasing blood volume—effectively creating an airbag for the brain in the skull. The collar tested well in animal studies, so Smith was eager to enlist Myer’s help in testing it on humans. For Myer, this was a turning point.
“That was the a-ha moment to say, ‘Maybe we can mimic this approach in humans and go forward,’” he says.
Putting the collar to the test
Before testing the collar on athletes in competition, Myer conducted several safety trials at the Human Performance Lab at Cincinnati Children’s. They tracked a litany of metrics, including neurocognitive measures, oxygen outputs and bloodwork values, reflex time, strength and power measurements. They found no adverse effects on young athletes wearing the collar.
Next, it was onto the field of play. Myer began with an initial test group of 15 high school hockey players, followed by a study of 42 varsity football players, comparing their pre-season, mid-season and post-season MRI brain scans. The findings: the groups that wore the collar throughout the season had experienced significantly less impact on brain tissue than the groups that did not wear the collar.
The subsequent testing on high school girl soccer players and SWAT team members echoed those results. Myer says the research on the soccer-playing girls proved particularly fruitful—it not only demonstrated the usefulness of the collar on non-helmeted users, but the duration of the trial gave his team a chance to gather data on subjects both with and without the collar.
“We had a unique opportunity where we had some of the girls who wore the collar the first year not wear it during the second year, so we could compare the same girls’ brains to themselves,” Myer says. “We found that when they didn’t wear the collar during the second year, they had some (neurological) changes that we didn’t see the first year. That was very interesting data.”
The quest for prevention
There’s been a heightened awareness around concussions across the sports landscape in recent years, placing much of the focus on diagnosis and treatment. Myer is quick to point out that repetitive impacts over time—without concussion—could be more serious than getting a concussion. So he stresses that more research and funding should be funneled into prevention.
“What I would love to see is more people coming up with solutions that are preventative to help our kids play safer,” Myer says.
Further testing continues—including with larger-scale studies on soccer and football players—as the company behind the collar’s development, Q30 Innovations, works toward approval for its use in the U.S. Meanwhile, the company plans to roll out the Q-Collar in Canada in June.
For Myer, it’s a step in the right direction—one that keeps kids active and engaged in sports, not on the sidelines for fear of injury. “I’m most passionate about keeping kids playing sports and trying to reduce the risk while playing sports,” says Myer.
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