two high school football players knocking helmets two high school football players knocking helmets Research has linked football concussions to an increased risk of Alzheimer's and other neurological disorders later in life. (Photo: Alan Bailey / Shutterstock)

The race to save our athletes' brains

Learn the tools used by coaches, parents and leagues across the country to protect young players.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a brain network activity imaging device that makes diagnosing concussions easier and more accurate. 

From there, its developers hope it will also make sports like football, hockey and soccer safer for young, developing athletes, and give peace of mind to parents who worry the games are becoming too dangerous.

Developed by Israeli startup ElMindA, the technology is compared to an MRI, but it goes a step further – doctors can actually see how the brain is responding in a "before and after" sequence.

The BNA device was cleared for use on people between 14 and 24 years old. Last fall, ElMindA tested its technology on 150 Minnesota youth hockey players, measuring their brain waves three times: at the beginning of the season, after a concussion, and at the end of the season. 

"What our tool is actually bringing is an ability to see the injury itself and not just the clinical symptoms," ElMindA CEO Ronen Gadot told Yahoo Sports.

The BNA system is meant as a tool for patient evaluation and management during recovery from a concussion. A doctor places a non-invasive electrode apparatus over the patient's head to monitor the brain's activity. Readings come from several places in the brain and are combined in what the company calls an advanced signal processing system. “Other imaging systems, like MRI or CT, show us how the brain is built, which is like reading a map, whereas we show what the brain activity is in real time, which is like a traffic report,” Gadot told Globes.

In addition to its work in concussions, ElMindA is also researching and developing techniques to more effectively diagnose Alzheimer's, ADHD, stroke and other neurological disorders.

Tools like this go a long way toward raising awareness of the potential dangers of head injuries in sports. Football, for one, has been dominated by disturbing stories of long-term health problems athletes are facing after years of being pummeled on the field. 

“The men playing the game are getting bigger, faster and stronger through better nutrition, better training and better technique,” Nate Jackson, an NFL player-turned-author, told Sports Illustrated. Jackson’s book, “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile,” touches on the physical and psychological impact of professional football and the pressures of getting back on the field after an injury. 

He’s one of many figures in the sports world to describe firsthand the perils of untreated and repeated head injuries and demand more decisive action to save athletes' brains.

youth football gameChildren's brains are more fragile and susceptible to injury than adult brains, experts say. (Photo: Amherst Patriots/Flickr)

Though the link between contact sports and brain injury is still the subject of unsettled and often contentious debate, one thing is certain: Simply strapping on a helmet is not enough to protect the brains of players, young or old, professional or pee wee. Some say it’s time for technology to catch up with data and make the game safer for everyone.

"These kids have long lives ahead of them, and we need to keep the brains in their heads intact," Mike Joslyn, superintendent of Caro Community Schools, told ABC News. The Michigan school district just canceled its high school football season due to the risk of injuries. 

A 2013 study revealed that even one football season's worth of hits can cause lifelong health problems for athletes. The leader of the study, published in the journal Neurology, told the Los Angeles Times that blows to the head can actually change the brain's structure and function. 

Some helmet manufacturers have taken heed and are focusing on management and detection of "the hit." Once only used on the college level, helmet impact sensors are now being introduced in youth sports. While they don't prevent or treat concussions, the sensors can send a message to a remote monitor when the helmet records a significant impact. The coach can then check the player for signs of concussion and seek medical attention if needed.

"We have 37 football players right now,” Jason Hicks, who coaches the Greenback High School football team in eastern Tennessee, told Today. “So out of those, about five or six have probably had concussions.

“Research is beginning to show that once a kid is concussed, he's more susceptible to that brain trauma again,” he added. “Those were the kids that we want the sensors to be on."

Many hospitals and health systems have issued guidelines for coaches and parents to help monitor, prevent and treat concussions. In a New York Times column, Dr. Robert Cantu of the Boston University School of Medicine said he doesn't believe youth football should be abolished, but he does strongly emphasize re-examining youth sports and putting children's safety first.

"The guiding principle should be that no head trauma is good trauma," he wrote. 

Regardless of advances in technology, ongoing research or fancier equipment, the main focus is keeping children safe.

"We cannot eliminate head trauma from youth sports," Cantu said. "What we can change is our mind-set so protecting the head and the brain is always a top consideration."

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