Lessons From Bird Brains

An anti-con­cus­sion col­lar draws in­spi­ra­tion from wood­peck­ers “The mar­ket is gi­ant. It’s a huge un­met clin­i­cal need”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - Technology - −Zeke Faux and Ira Boud­way

The doc­tors who dis­cov­ered that foot­ball can cause brain dam­age are the he­roes of Con­cus­sion , which opens in the­aters on Dec. 25. Now one of them may be on the verge of an­other break­through. Dr. Ju­lian Bailes, played by Alec Bald­win in the film, is part of a team that’s cre­ated what might be the first de­vice to cut down on con­cus­sions.

Spoiler alert: It’s not an­other high­tech hel­met. Hel­mets are good at pre­vent­ing skull frac­tures, but they can’t pre­vent con­cus­sions. That’s be­cause the brain floats in fluid in­side the skull, like an egg yolk in­side a shell. No mat­ter how well the out­side is padded, the brain is still dam­aged when it sloshes against the sides of the skull dur­ing a col­li­sion. Bailes’s in­no­va­tion is a col­lar that lightly con­stricts the jugu­lar vein, which has the ef­fect of re­duc­ing the jig­gle room in­side the cra­nium. In Oc­to­ber, Per­for­mance Sports Group, the maker of Bauer ice hockey equip­ment and Cas­cade lacrosse hel­mets, li­censed the tech­nol­ogy; it plans to start sell­ing the bands within a year or two, sub­ject to ap­proval by the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “The mar­ket is gi­ant,” says Kevin Davis, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Ex­eter, N.H., com­pany. “It’s a huge un­met clin­i­cal need.”

The light­bulb mo­ment came in 2007. Dr. David Smith, CEO of Xen­no­vate Med­i­cal, had just wrapped up a pre­sen­ta­tion on wound dress­ings. Some­one in at­ten­dance sug­gested he look at brain in­juries: “If some­body can fig­ure out how a wood­pecker can smash its head into a tree and fly away with­out a headache, we’d prob­a­bly have the prob­lem solved,” Smith re­calls the per­son say­ing.

He be­gan study­ing wood­peck­ers. One of their most un­usual fea­tures is a long tongue, which in some species is sup­ported by bones that wrap all the way around the head. Smith the­o­rizes th­ese com­press the wood­pecker’s neck veins as it thrusts its head for­ward, in­creas­ing the vol­ume of blood be­tween its brain and its skull. Smith says this ex­tra fluid “works like Bub­ble Wrap” to help keep the brain from knock­ing against the skull. He was con­vinced that the same ef­fect could be re­pro­duced in hu­mans, per­haps with some kind of col­lar.

Smith con­tacted Bailes to share his

the­ory in 2009, af­ter watch­ing him tes­tify be­fore Congress about head in­juries in the NFL. The team doc­tor for the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers from 1988 to 1998, Bailes was among those who raised the alarm about chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy, a brain dis­ease that wreaks havoc on the lives of for­mer play­ers. The two men met and de­cided to run some tests on an­i­mals. “We went to Michaels arts & crafts and made a col­lar that would fit a rat,” Bailes re­calls.

A stan­dard test in brain dam­age re­search in­volves drop­ping brass weights on the heads of anes­thetized rats, then in­spect­ing their brains for tear­ing in the con­nec­tions be­tween nerve cells. Bailes told Smith that pre­vi­ous ex­per­i­ments found noth­ing re­duced the dam­age in ro­dents’ brains by even 1 per­cent. “No mat­ter what we put be­tween that ball that comes out of the sky and that rat’s skull—we’ve put rub­ber, we’ve put steel, Kevlar—noth­ing changes,” says Smith, quot­ing Bailes.

Sub­se­quent tests showed that rats with the jugu­lar-con­strict­ing bands had 80 per­cent less dam­age than those with­out. Three years ago, Smith and Bailes en­listed Dr. Gre­gory Myer at the Hu­man Per­for­mance Lab­o­ra­tory at Cincin­nati Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal to test the de­vice on hu­mans. He re­cruited about 60 high school foot­ball play­ers, gave half of them col­lars, and mea­sured changes in their brains over the course of a sea­son. The re­sults will be de­tailed in a pa­per that Myer plans to sub­mit for pub­li­ca­tion early next year.

Chris Nowin­ski, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Con­cus­sion Legacy Foun­da­tion, says, “It will also be ex­tremely hard to prove this de­vice works, as there will be a mas­sive placebo ef­fect.” Says the for­mer pro wrestler: “Im­pres­sion­able high school ath­letes, when given this col­lar and told it pre­vents con­cus­sions, will re­port fewer con­cus­sions.”

Myer’s pre­lim­i­nary data were ap­par­ently strong enough to in­ter­est Per­for­mance Sports Group, which has com­mit­ted $7 mil­lion. CEO Davis is so con­fi­dent of the band’s ef­fec­tive­ness that he’s hav­ing his son wear it dur­ing hockey games. The bot­tom line A de­vice worn on the neck may help pre­vent con­cus­sions by re­duc­ing the jig­gle room be­tween the cra­nium and the brain.

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