Chips in football helmets to monitor for concussions; Drew Brees backs Intel's R&D

Intel is teaming up with football helmet manufacturers to bring the science of supercomputing to sports equipment in an effort to monitor brain damage in real time and build helmets that minimize risk of injury.

"Future technologies could include helmets with built-in Intel Atom chips that measure and feed real-time data to medical personnel," Intel, the world's biggest chip maker, said Monday at the SC10 supercomputing conference in New Orleans.

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Intel landed local hero Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, most valuable player of Super Bowl XLIV, to raise awareness about technologies that could help monitor on-field brain injuries and build helmets optimized to reduce the risk of concussion.

"Using supercomputers and workstations based on present and future Intel processor technology, researchers are simulating collisions to study the impact on the brain, and use that information to design new football helmets that reduce the risk of short- and long-term injuries," Intel said.

The risk of brain injury in football has been pushed into the public eye because of new research that details the risks of concussions, as well as sub-concussive hits that are damaging yet largely ignored by players and coaches because they occur so frequently.

Hits to the head that occur in football are so brutal they could be considered the equivalent of ramming a car into a brick wall at 35 miles per hour, Intel officials said.

Undiagnosed concussions are a major concern, and Brees acknowledged continuing to play in a game after suffering a concussion early in his career.

"I know of one concussion I've had," Brees said during a press conference hosted by Intel. "It was back in 2004, I was playing for the Chargers. Oddly enough, I did not come out of the game for that one until much later in the game when they saw I wasn't all there."

Brees said his ideal helmet would be one "that will best protect me from any serious hits. A lot of times, I can't protect myself when I'm sitting in the pocket. A lot of times, I'm just a sitting duck."

Brees said he's had six football-related surgeries and recalled observing many injuries that concerned him. "It's a heart-wrenching feeling when a guy goes down with a head injury and especially a neck injury," he said. "They're laying on the field motionless, that's a really scary thing."

But convincing competitive athletes such as football players to leave a game, even upon evidence of a brain injury, is not always easy. Brees, in response to a question from Network World, acknowledged that he would be reluctant to leave the Super Bowl even if he were diagnosed with a concussion on the sideline.

"I've got to be honest, if I'm in the Super Bowl, I'm lying as best I can to tell them 'I'm fine and I'm staying in.' You don't know how many opportunities you get to play in the Super Bowl."

In general, though, Brees said he's excited about technologies that can quickly determine whether a player has suffered a concussion. If a sideline scan showed damage, Brees said the best course for team officials is to say, "Let's pull you out and bring you back next week."

Intel is working with helmet maker Riddell and researchers from several universities to simulate football collisions and study their impact on the brain, in the hopes of building injury-resistant helmets, the chipmaker said.

The simulations, using technology embedded within helmets, such as wireless transceivers and accelerometers, produce visualizations of stresses on the brain caused by collisions, and compare them with data from other impacts to determine a player's risk of injury.

Future technologies using Intel Atom processors "could be embedded in helmets and wirelessly feed data into servers and cloud networks that measure injury risk and impact in real-time," Intel said. "When combined with impact simulation, this could better safeguard players by identifying potential injuries quickly so that medical personnel can respond faster and have information as soon as they reach the player on the field."

NFL helmets are already high-tech, allowing players to communicate with coaches while on the field. But Intel did not say when it expects its own advancements to be used on the field. Intel is working with Mayo Clinic to improve the speed of diagnostics of medical scans using a prototype chip design called Intel MIC, a project that Intel said could make the future helmet technology more viable.

While much of the focus is on getting injured players out of harm's way, Intel also said faster diagnostics could make it so "players spend less time on the bench and more time on the field." The Intel/Mayo collaboration was able to reduce the time it takes to get brain scan results from five minutes to 12 seconds.

Intel officials banged two helmets together to produce an impact simulation, and showed a visualization of a brain with dark, circular lines moving in response to a hit on the head. The visualizations can be produced within a minute of a hit, said John Hengeveld, director of high performance computing marketing for Intel.

While watching the simulations, Hengeveld said, "Think of this as neurons being scrambled."

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