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Sensor-Equipped Helmets Helping Monitor Head Injuries

BAE System's Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic Systems is mounted inside a combat helmet to measure the pressure and angular and linear accelerations from traumatic events. (Photo courtesy BAE Systems)

SAN FRANCISCO -- The U.S. Navy's top doctor said the military is benefiting from sensor-equipped helmets that monitor the power of concussive forces.

"We've learned a tremendous amount about concussion care from the combat arena," Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan, surgeon general of the Navy, told Military.com here during last week's Fleet Week celebration of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

"What we've learned actually is care that we've brought back and is now being implemented at some universities and sports teams across the nation as we partner with professional sports as well to look at how we can reduce, prevent and care for concussions."

Nathan was referring the Defense Department's partnerships with the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to research brain injuries. For example, the Army beginning in 2007 put blast sensors into tens of thousands of helmets to monitor head injuries from roadside bombs in Afghanistan. And the Pentagon and NCAA last year announced a joint study into concussions.

Companies such as BAE Systems make small sensors that monitor and record the overpressures and accelerations experienced through head impacts or movements. The British-based defense contractor's Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic Systems, for example, is mounted inside a combat helmet to measure the pressure and angular and linear accelerations from traumatic events.

"If an explosion, for example, causes quick head movements or pressures that exceed predefined thresholds, HEADS records the event," its website states. "This stored event data can later be easily downloaded through a USB connection, allowing medical personnel to receive information crucial in determining the potential for head and brain injuries."

Nathan said the partnerships with outside organizations are paying off.

"It's not standard practice yet, but the experimental prototypes are allowing us to determine what types of hits and what types of helmets provide the best protection against a concussion," he said.

"One of our challenges is that two individuals can receive the same apparent force injury to their heads and one comes out completely functional and doing fine and the other has headache and some post-concussive signs," Nathan said. "So what it is about individual makeup as well that may make you more susceptible to an injury than your buddy?"

He added, "The science, although it's fascinating, it's urgent, because we want to get on top of this in a hurry."

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