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Heroes

A color-changing helmet could be the key to fighting concussions in football.

Here's a vicious football hit.

GIF via the National Football League.


Now here's a truck slamming into a wall at 80 mph.

GIF via the American Chemical Society.

Amazingly, the impacts of these two events aren't all that dissimilar.

According to multiplestudies, the hardest hits in football can register a whopping g-force of more than 130 (or 130 times the acceleration caused by gravity). For reference, an intense roller coaster registers a g-force of about 5. A severe car crash is somewhere around 120.

Key takeaway: If you ever have a choice between being hit by an NFL linebacker or a pickup, choose the truck.

A g-force of 100 is generally considered plenty of force to sustain a concussion (a traumatic brain injury) though the exact threshold isn't known. But the numbers add up. Over 120 players in the NFL were reported to have sustained a concussion last year, not to mention nearly a quarter million young athletes.

The problem for football players, and team doctors, is that there's no good way to tell just how big a hit was from the sidelines.

Again, we don't know exactly what parameters cause concussions. But we do know there are varying grades of severity. We also know you don't have to be hit in the head to get one.

With so many variables, it can be nearly impossible to know when a football player needs to be evaluated for head injury until they start showing symptoms, like memory loss, nausea, or fatigue.

Sometimes these warning signs show up right away. Sometimes not for days or even weeks. And sometimes, players can hide symptoms in order to stay in the game, putting themselves in even greater danger.

Recently, a confused Wisconsin player wandered into the wrong huddle after a blow to the head. GIF via ESPN.

Thankfully, that could all be about to change.

Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have developed a color-changing material that could instantly — and visually — indicate severe head trauma.

Penn professor Shu Yang and his team are working to fine-tune a chemical strip made of tiny crystals whose color changes depending on how they're arranged. A physical impact that shifts the arrangement of the crystals can turn the material from its original red to other hues:

Green for big impacts. Purple for even bigger impacts.

The impact from that speeding truck turns the crystals purple. Image via the American Chemical Society.

When integrated into football helmets, this kind of instant visual cue could be an incredible tool for team doctors and trainers. While it won't by itself diagnose a concussion or other injury, it will help everyone on the field keep a lookout for players who may need to come out of the game for evaluation.

Meanwhile, other companies and researchers are working on helmets that better displace energy from high-impact collisions and tiny remote sensors that transmit measurements of force directly to doctors on the sidelines.

Together, these innovations could make the game we love a lot safer in the coming years, which is great news because it's a fact:

Football's concussion problem is a big one.

Over the past couple of years, concussions in football have been labeled an "epidemic." There have been rule changes at all levels of the sport. New, safer equipment. Even Hollywood movies.

But perhaps most jarring is the slew of young, promising players walking away from the game entirely for fear of long-term brain damage.

Football is a violent sport. It always has been and likely always will be. The players know that. But we owe it to them to make sure they know when they're really in danger. And to make sure they get the treatment they need before serious injuries, like concussions, get worse.

This new helmet technology could go a long way to that end.

Watch this video from the American Chemical Society to learn more:

The Prince Charles Cinema/Youtube

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