University of Pennsylvania scientists have developed color-changing crystals that could improve the detection and care of football players' head injuries. But they need funding and partners to develop practical applications.
The program at the Philadelphia-based university has around $800,000 in funding from the U.S. Air Force and Navy, which will run out within a year. The scientists need partners, such as
Johnson & Johnson
or the National Football League, which hosted the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.
The Super Bowl game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals passed without major injuries. However, head injuries have been a focus of the NFL recently. In 2007, a study of more than 2,500 former players by the University of North Carolina showed that those who had suffered three or more concussions in their careers were three times more likely to suffer from clinical depression.
At a news conference last week, leading medical experts at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) reported that nine-year NFL veteran and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Tom McHale was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma, when he died in 2008 at age 45. In addition, the CSTE discovered early evidence of CTE in the youngest case to date, a recently deceased 18-year-old man who suffered multiple concussions in high school football.
Professor Shu Yang, of Penn's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who credits her group and Dr. Douglas Smith's at the Department of Neurosurgery at Penn with the development of this breakthrough in technology, said the crystal science is ready for development into practical applications.
As for the technology, the structure of crystal layers in a sticker change color depending on the intensity of shockwaves detected. It is this visible color change that allows for an immediate assessment of the potential trauma and likelihood of brain injury.
Dr. Ira Casson, a neurologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is the co-chair of the NFL committee that has being studying concussions in players for 15 years. He said Jan. 30 that although he is not aware of Yang's work, "we are always interested in new technologies. We would be very interested and willing to listen. The NFL has sponsored a great deal of biomechanical research." This research, according to Casson, has led to new helmet designs.
According to Yang, the crystal patches are patented, and other patents will be pending as experimentation continues with the thickness of the patches, the types of crystals and structure. Currently 1 millimeter in thickness, the crystal structure has been tested up to just over three-quarters of an inch in size and provides a visual indication that a trauma has taken place.
Challenges will include developing quantification methods for the level of trauma, said Yang, who added that a company making bicycle helmets in Britain has expressed interest in the technology. Yang's group is continuing to experiment and is looking into how the optical changes of the crystals can be applied to engineering problems.
Penn scientists anticipate that the sticker test would be used by troops to measure the effect of bomb blasts on the brain. This would include Marines and Army soldiers, but could conceivably be extrapolated to include any member of the Armed Forces.
The NFL could provide much-needed funding that could be used to turn the science into a commercial application through the practical issues of production. This development would have lots of challenges, Yang said.
GE and Johnson & Johnson are known for philanthropy and the commercial development of new technologies. The development of the crystal technology could provide the companies with an opportunity to help take this technology from the research-and-development stage with Penn and the NFL to a commercial product.
Todd Alhart, a spokesman for GE's Global Research Center, said the company works in partnership with universities in collaboration on a specific project and that it has more than 300 ongoing collaborations. He said this type of project is "a great way to expand our development reach and feed our future product pipeline." Messages left with Johnson & Johnson were not responded to immediately.
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