MSU Researchers Develop Smaller, More Accurate Impact Sensor for Athlete Concussions

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A more accurate and smaller sensor place on the neck has been developed by researchers at MSU to replace the traditional head impact sensors inside a football helmet. // Courtesy of MSU
A more accurate and smaller sensor place on the neck has been developed by researchers at MSU to replace the traditional head impact sensors inside a football helmet. // Courtesy of MSU

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have created an alternative to sensors traditionally placed inside the helmet of football players and other high-impact athletes to detect head impacts that is thin and is instead placed on the athlete’s neck.

Each year, 20 percent of the estimated 1.7 million concussions are sports-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While watching a football game between MSU and the University of Michigan, Nelson Sepúlveda, a professor in the College of Engineering, was struck with inspiration.

“I was sitting close to the field and was watching the hard hits those players withstand,” says Sepúlveda. “I thought, these guys need to be protected, and there must be a better way to measure how hard the impact is to detect concussions.”

Sepúlveda and Henry Dsouza, his graduate student, developed a thin ferroelectric nano generator sensor that is about 0.1 millimeters thick and is about the size of a bandage. When the sensor is pulled or pressed, an electrical charge is created that is transmitted to a computer.

The idea is that athletes would wear the “bandage” sensors on their necks throughout games or practices. When a collision that could cause a concussion happens, the medical team would receive an alert on a sideline computer to take the player off the field and do further tests.

To test the accuracy of the bandage sensor, a crash-test dummy’s head was equipped with accelerometers inside the head and bandage sensors on the front, back, right and left sides of its neck.

The head was dropped about two feet, and the data from inside the helmet was compared to the data from the bandage sensor on the dummy’s neck to determine whether the athlete experienced a concussion. The bandage sensor accurately measured the whiplash motion of the neck as being consistent with concussion injuries.

“I really thought the sensor had to be on the head,” says Sepúlveda. “I was surprised to learn from the experiences and my students that we could tell there was a concussion to the head by the way the neck moved.”

Sepúlveda, Dsouza and their team at MSU would like to streamline the design of the bandage sensor by using a wireless transmitter. The researchers also hope to see the technology in use in the future for football and ice hockey players from youth leagues up through professional sports teams.

The research was published June 23 in Scientific Reports.

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