Fans of the University of Nebraska Cornhusker football team may not be the only ones wearing funny headgear on game day. Alongside the corn head hats worn in the stands, injured players may soon be exchanging their helmets for electrode-covered mesh caps on the sidelines.
A new device, being developed in the university's Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior (CB3), could allow medical staff to quickly evaluate a player's brain waves after a heavy hit to decide whether or not he can resume playing.
The CB3 lab, led by Dennis Molfese, is connected by a 100-foot skywalk to the new Athletic Performance Lab at Memorial Stadium, and Molfese's goals are just as high:
"Our goal is to do nothing less than to make this a cutting-edge, world-renowned, world-unique brain-imaging center that eventually will become a model for brain-imaging centers around the world."
Concussions and their long-term effects have taken the center stage recently, with NFL players in the process of suing the National Football League (NFL) over head trauma. CNN reports that former footballers have alleged the NFL of "concealing the dangers of head trauma."
Many of the NFL players participating in the class-action lawsuit claim evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease that is dementia-like in its symptoms and has been linked to repeated brain trauma, including concussions.
A recent study from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) suggested that repetitive brain trauma alone is enough to trigger CTE.
The Associated Press (AP) reports there are about 300,000 sports-related concussions that come to light in the US each year. A device that quickly and accurately gives medical staff a picture of an athlete's brainwaves would be groundbreaking.
The CB3's device, which is a type of functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine that follows the brain's blood flow, could be ready in 1 to 2 years and could one day be used in hospitals to screen patients quickly after suspected brain injuries. Molfese told AP the electrode caps will measure the players' response to stimuli:
"We can get an idea of what area of the brain is being involved in the process, whether the speed of processing is at the rate it should be. The different areas of the brain that normally integrate information quickly stop doing that, so that's another way we should be able to pick up whether there is an injury or not."
Molfese is one of 14 experts on the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine Committee on Sports-Related Concussions in Youth, a board that will report on brain injuries to Congress and President Barack Obama.
Former head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers and athletic director Tom Osborne told the AP that the CB3 project was one of the major initiatives he undertook during his tenure as athletic director.
He wanted the athletic and academic sides of the university to collaborate on studies; while the athletes are participating in concussion studies, political scientists may use the MRI device to see if they can find a reason for why some people are conservative while others are liberal.
Perhaps one day researchers can use the electrode cap to deduce why some fans make the stylistic decision to wear funny hats on game day.