A new helmet containing thermoplastic shock absorbers and designed by a former US footballer has been hailed as the most significant breakthrough in the last three decades.
The helmet model conceived by Vin Ferrara, a former Harvard quarterback, can offer better protection against concussions than any available so far.
Football helmets have evolved over more than a century from crude leather bonnets to face-masked, polycarbonate battering rams. But they still often fail to protect brains from the sudden forces that cause concussions.
Studies in US have found that 10 to 50 percent of high school players each season sustain concussions, whose effects can range from persistent memory problems and depression to coma and death.
Horror stories regarding use of deteriorated helmets are not uncommon. Six years ago, Max Conradt, a high school player in Yachats, Ore., was wearing a 20-year-old helmet when he sustained hits that left him comatose for two months and permanently impaired.
Football helmets present the technological challenge of protecting against all manner of blows to the head and also doing so thousands of times. (Bicycle helmets, by contrast, are designed to withstand just one major, accidental impact.) Optimally, a helmet's interior must be forgiving enough to cushion against a routine impact while also sturdy enough to withstand a potentially lethal one — each level of force requires a different response from the material.
Rather than being lined with rows of traditional foam or urethane, Ferrara's helmet features 18 black, thermoplastic shock absorbers filled with air that can accept a wide range of forces and still moderate the sudden jarring of the head that causes concussion.
Moreover, laboratory tests have shown that the disks can withstand hundreds of impacts without any notable degradation in performance, a longtime drawback of helmets' traditional foam.
Dr. Gerry Gioia, a pediatric neuropsychologist who directs the concussion program at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, said Ferrara's helmet could "take helmet protection to a whole new level."
"I think it's very real," Gioia said. "Foams have only had a certain amount of success in absorbing force. Think of what crumple zones in cars meant to reducing injuries. That's the idea behind this technology — this does what it's supposed to do better than any other."
The helmet has not yet been tested by actual players in games. Earlier this month, it passed certification tests conducted by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, which certifies helmet models worn by each of the more than 2 million football players in the United States.
Ferrara said that his company, Xenith LLC, expected the helmet to be available for the 2008 football season — either produced by Xenith or perhaps by license to an existing manufacturer. The price will be about $350, more than twice the cost of existing headgear. Ferrara, who after graduating from Harvard in 1996 earned medical and business degrees from Columbia, said he expected marketing to focus less on schools, whose budgets are tight, than parents with concern for their child.
"This is more a piece of safety equipment, along the lines of a child car seat, than just a piece of athletic equipment," Ferrara said.
Internal tests on his helmet's shock absorbers have shown no notable degradation after hundreds of hits. That, along with the helmet's promising test scores, could be opening up new vistas for the new design.
Dr. Robert Cantu a leading expert in concussion management and who has informally advised Ferrara in the project, said, "Anything that's protective in nature, that's used to attenuate energy, could be improved markedly."