Sensor developed at MSU delivers rapid impact diagnosis

Mar 25, 2017

In the worlds of sports, TBI is becoming as familiar an acronym as NFL and NBA. Traumatic brain injury can abruptly end a player’s career.  On the playing field, it can be hard to tell the severity of the impact.  Now, a newly-marketed invention created by two Michigan State University chemists is helping to give those answers immediately.

On a crisp, blue afternoon in Lansing, the Okemos High School boys lacrosse team is running drills for its first game of the season.

Coach Mike Van Antwerp keeps a sharp eye on their technique.  On the field, helmets are a must.  To paraphrase the legendary Spartan football coach Duffy Daugherty, lacrosse is not a contact’s a collision sport.  

Van Antwerp has seen a lot of those.  Some jolts the boys easily shake off.  Others are better hidden.

“Usually the kids want to get back out there, and they want to not let you know the impact that it’s had,” says Van Antwerp.  “But usually through talking to them, and with the help of the trainers, it tells you how much it’s impacting them.”

Traumatic brain injury is every gladiator sport coach’s worst fear.   In the heat of the game, the severity of the blow isn’t always clear.

But that’s starting to change.

“The key point is to make a rapid decision regarding return to play,” explains Michigan State University chemistry professor Dr. Marcos Dantus.  “The first question is, was someone hit, where and how hard?  Those seem to be very reasonable and simple questions to answer, except that the impact occurs in a millisecond.  Maybe someone saw it, maybe they didn’t.  Maybe they just heard something.”

After years of lab work, Dantus and his colleague, Dr. Gary Blanchard, have just marketed a product that could reveal those answers.  They call it a ROSH, which stands for Rapid On Site Head injury sensor.  

It’s a strip about the size of a Band-Aid, inserted into a soft nylon cap worn under the helmet.

“The sensing strips are contained in the perimeter of the cap,” says Blanchard.  “If it was suspected that an impact had occurred, one would simply pull the impact sensing strip out of the band and examine it to see if a mark had been made.”

That mark shows up as a dark imprint on one or more of five circles on the strip.  If the blow is hard enough, a star appears in the circle.  The strip doesn’t measure damage to tissue or bone.  Instead, using basic physics, it measures the force applied to the object.  Whether you’re striking steel or butter, the principle remains the same: force equals mass times acceleration.

But how do Dantus and Blanchard test the ROSH strip without actually causing physical harm?  

The duo unlocks their basement lab for a demonstration.

Inside, we’re greeted by a dozen pairs of staring eyes frozen in molded plastic silence.  It’s as if Dr. Frankenstein sent Igor to raid a cosmetology school.  Mannequin heads sit on desks and countertops. Some are wearing football helmets.   

In the center of the room is a segment of PVC pipe, maybe 10 feet long.  A helmeted head is affixed to one end.  Gary Blanchard raises the pipe with a rope pulley about six feet above a steel bar.   

“This will be approximately a 60 g (force) hit,” he says.

A 60 g-force impact isn’t out of the question in contact sports, especially at the professional level.  That’s a lot of force on the human brain.

I’ve seen the hit, and I can picture the stars showing up on the strip.  But I still don’t quite understand the connection between the two.  So I ask Gary Blanchard.

“What is it that puts a star in that circle?” I inquire.

“That’s the secret sauce,” Blanchard quips.

That’s the internal reaction that two MSU chemists have labored to perfect.  To divulge the details would be to betray a trade secret...and after their Edisonian journey through some 200 prototypes, that’s not something they’re willing to discuss.

Blanchard and Dantus have tested their strip with the MSU football and soccer teams.  Now that the sensor is in production, they’re trying a soft launch with area high school teams.  They’re in talks with the athletic directors in East Lansing and Okemos.

Back at the lacrosse practice, Okemos coach Mike Van Antwerp is intrigued.  Concussion awareness is a hot topic in his field, and Van Antwerp wants to do his part for safety.

“Something that would tell us more information immediately would be a huge advantage to us in helping our players,” he says.