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Could Magnets Help Lessen The Impact Of Concussions In Football?

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

You remember toying around with magnets when you were a kid, right? If you try to push two sides with the same charge together, they put up a fight. Well, Raymond Colello wants to put those forces to use in football helmets. Colello is a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he's a football fan. And he knows that there is only so much that traditional helmets can do to stem concussions on the field. So one day, about a year ago, as he was watching a Denver Broncos game, he had a classic a-ha moment in the wake of the big hit on star receiver Wes Welker.

RAYMOND COLELLO: You know, at that point, I was thinking, wow, they really need a force field around their heads of some sort. And at that time, I walked back to my refrigerator for maybe one more drink. And I happened to see the refrigerator door, and on top of it was a lot of the art of my children.

VIGELAND: (Laughter).

COLELLO: All of the sudden, it came to me.

VIGELAND: All right, well, explain how this might work.

COLELLO: What the magnets would do is really introduce a break on the system before the collision takes place, you know, very similar to - imagine a guy driving a car running into a wall at 30 miles an hour. He's going to expose himself to a certain amount of impact forces. Imagine that same gentleman driving his car at 30 miles an hour into a well, but just before he hits it, he jams on the brakes. He's still going to hit the wall, but it's going to stretch out the time in which the collision occurs. And that's where we're going to get a real change in G-forces that his body will experience.

VIGELAND: I know the fluid around the brain protects it from a certain amount of jostling. The helmet, of course, protects it even further. But what have you found in your experiments with magnetized helmets?

COLELLO: First of all, you know, when you think about the players that play - for example, Chris Johnson...

VIGELAND: One of the faster players in the NFL.

COLELLO: One of the fastest runners - you know, he can run up to 20 miles an hour. And if he gets hit in the open playing field, the forces are quite staggering, and what we're talking about is a change of acceleration. The impact time will take only 12 milliseconds, and he'll experience 120 Gs of force. Now, if you can actually extend that time to, say, 17 milliseconds, you can shift the G-forces down to 88. We're not going to be able to change his velocity. He's going as fast as he can go. But we might be able to extend the time at which that impact takes place.

What we found in laboratory experiments - a 60-G impact would be shifted down to about 20, 25 Gs. An 80-G impact will be shifted down to about 40, 45. And a 120-G impact, which is - concussions readily occur at 100 Gs. A 120 impact would be shifted down to about 88 Gs.

VIGELAND: You know, magnets are used in medicine for imaging all the time. But I wonder if there's any other existing technology that will tell you whether it is OK for people to put magnets this close to their skulls for three or more hours at a time.

COLELLO: You're absolutely right. I think our closest analogy, really, we have is MRIs. These magnets that we have are producing field strengths that are only two percent or one percent of what you would see if you're exposed to a magnet in an MRI.

VIGELAND: OK. Now, it sounds like you're pretty early in the research stage here. What happens next?

COLELLO: We're trying to make a specific type of magnet that would be arc in nature so that it would fit right within the inside of the polycarbonate shell of the helmet. And these have to be specially designed and manufactured. What we're doing then is we're going to be using the Hybrid II head forms that normally you've seen in crash test dummies. They have accelerometers placed within the head. In fact, we're going to be using a zip line to run two helmets towards each other and then getting that data to determine what kind of forces have been reduced or how the forces have changed upon impact. Once we get that data, then we'll know when and how to proceed to field conditions.

VIGELAND: Raymond Colello is an associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Thank you. It's fascinating.

COLELLO: Well, thank you, Tess. Really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.