UCLA researches concussions with special football helmets

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UCLA football players will be wearing special helmets that study the impact of hits during games as part of a research project on concussions. (KABC)

Helmets are an important part of football, and UCLA just started a three-year $30 million "crash test."

UCLA has 27 players who volunteered to have sensors in their helmets, which measure every hit. The data is transmitted live via a wireless signal to a laptop.

"They have these little pagers so anything over 90 on their scale is considered a measurable hit. They should probably take a look at the guy and make sure they're not at risk for a concussion," said Brendan Burger, UCLA equipment manager.

Brendan said the pagers go off usually once at each practice, and this study will continue into the next three football seasons for every game.

"If we have an athlete, for example, where we see their impacts are occurring a lot on top of their head rather than in front or on the sides, we can take the individual aside and say, 'Hey look, this is what we're seeing on our impact data. We need to work on your technique,'" said Dr. John DiFiori, head physician at UCLA Health.

The data shows where the impact of the hit occurred on the helmet and the amount of force applied in every direction. The information is invaluable to researchers, especially when less than 10 percent of the players who suffer a concussion lose consciousness.

The impact data is stored and then shared with 15 other colleges involved in the research program.

Every athlete involved gets a baseline test for balance, memory and reaction time. But what makes UCLA unique is that it is one of three schools that does increased testing, including an advance MRI on the brain and blood tests called bio markers.

"When the brain has a head injury, it's going through a process of recovery and we have very, sort of, indirect ways of trying to assess when the brain has recovered. These more objective tools may in the future really help us to know when someone has recovered from an injury," DiFiori said.

When asked if it would be difficult to take a star player out during a game, UCLA football coach Jim Mora said making that call should not be hard.

"I think that if we keep things in perspective and realize that our players' safety should be our No. 1 priority [it won't be difficult]," Mora said.

That shift in attitude is one of the goals in the research project. The hope is to gain substantial data to change the concussion culture so that athletes can get back on the field.

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