The biggest help yet in preventing football concussions: Woodpeckers?
▶ An anti-concussion collar draws inspiration from woodpeckers ▶ “The market is giant. It’s a huge unmet clinical need”
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