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NFL Funds Additional Research to Prevent Traumatic Brain Injuries

The NFL and its partners named seven additional winners of the Head Health Challenge.

Shutterstock / Tomacco

On Thursday morning, the NFL, GE and Under Armour plan to announce seven additional winners of the Head Health Challenge, an ongoing effort to spur research into detecting and preventing brain injuries amid growing concern over the long-term consequences of on-field hits.

The organizations will award as much as $8.5 million in this second phase of the challenge, but have collectively earmarked $60 million to push forward science in this field.

The seven winners, which include teams at the Army Research Laboratory, Emory University, UC Los Angeles and elsewhere, will each receive $500,000 to advance development of products designed to avert, detect or measure brain injuries. Up to five of those could secure an additional $1 million next year depending on their progress.

“The research breakthroughs generated by the Head Health Challenge will have a positive impact when it comes to helping protect our players and all athletes regardless of sport,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in statement provided to Re/code. “But we also hope that, years from now, the technology that results from this initiative will have a long-lasting impact on the way that medical professionals diagnose head injuries, and in the way that equipment manufacturers help protect against them.”

But critics have charged that the Head Health Challenge is as much a public relations effort as a scientific one.

The NFL and other sports leagues have faced growing pressure in recent years as the toll of repeated gridiron collisions comes into sharper focus. Researchers have linked multiple concussions or even the accumulation of milder brain injuries to early onset dementia, depression, aggression and even suicide, conditions collectively classified as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The enhanced understanding of the long-term effects of these injuries has prompted a series of special reports, books, documentaries and lawsuits, as well as ongoing debates over the wisdom of childhood sports and even the ethics of being a fan.

Asked if the latest level of funding was adequate, given the devastating health consequences of these injuries and the nearly $10 billion in revenue the NFL pulls down, Goodell stressed in his statement that it’s just one part of a much larger program.

He pointed to an additional $30 million that the NFL provided to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health for basic science research, the NFL Foundation’s $25 million commitment to health and safety programs and another $45 million provided to USA Football’s Heads Up Football program to improve coaching.

Meanwhile, the NFL last year announced a two-pronged partnership with General Electric’s health-care division. The companies agreed to jointly invest $40 million in a four-year research effort to improve MRIs and other imaging technologies, with the specific aim of enabling better detection of milder injuries, GE Ventures CEO Sue Siegel said in an interview with Re/code.

The businesses unveiled the $20 million Head Health Challenge partnership at the same time, describing it as an “open innovation challenge” designed to fund third parties working in this field.

In January, they announced 16 winners of the first phase of the challenge, focused on research “to speed diagnosis and improve treatment for mild traumatic brain injury.” Those winners, including BrainScope, UC San Francisco, Johns Hopkins Medicine and others, received $300,000 each. As many as six of them could secure another $500,000 next year.

Following up last September, the league announced the second phase of the challenge, adding Under Armour to the partnership and offering awards for “new innovations and materials that can protect the brain from traumatic injury and for new tools for tracking head impacts in real time.”

The seven winners that will be announced on Thursday, winnowed down from some 500 proposals, include:

  • The Army Research Laboratory, which created a new type of tether that allows free motion at low speeds but adds resistance at high speeds. The idea is that running them between the head and torso would allow for voluntary head movement, but halt the sudden accelerations associated with hard hits.
  • Researchers at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology who created a portable device known as iDETECT that can assess athletes right after a blow, evaluating their balance, cognitive function and eye movements.
  • Teams at UC Los Angeles and Architected Materials that are collaborating on “energy-absorbing microlattice material” produced through 3-D printing that could potentially make helmets more protective.
  • Researchers at the University of New Hampshire who are studying the potential of “Helmetless Tackling Training” to teach high school athletes safer and more effective tackling and blocking techniques.
  • The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which together are developing high-tech goggles that could provide a “non-invasive” form of diagnosis of mild brain injuries by precisely measuring eye movements.
  • Researchers at the University of Washington who are developing a helmet with a novel “impact absorbing structure,” through a project known as VICIS.
  • Viconic Sporting, a company that is creating a new kind of synthetic turf that could minimize injuries.

Siegel said it’s too soon to point to any leaps forward from the first phase of the challenge, stressing that these things take time and many of the products in question could face years of Food and Drug Administration trials.

“But we’re hopeful that in the next couple years some of these start to progress in a pretty quick way,” she said. “We’re bringing to bear the power of the crowd to really look at the problem.”

The video below highlights the research underway at the Army Research Laboratory on “rate-dependent straps.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the University of Washington’s project is now called VICIS.

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