Clemson, SC (Liv Osby/Greenville News) -- As concerns mount over the possible long-term brain damage associated with concussions, researchers at Clemson University are working with two companies in the region on a new material they hope will strengthen football helmets and make the game safer.
The Clemson researchers are putting their heads together with Innegra Technologies and B&W Fiber Glass on a new composite which contains newly developed high-strength fibers.
"A majority of the improvements in head protection have focused on padding or adjustments to the shape of the helmet," said Dr. John DesJardins, an assistant bioengineering professor. "But few, if any, changes have been made to the materials used in the shell of the helmet."
A concussion is a traumatic injury that occurs when the brain shifts violently inside the skull.
And each year, there are at least 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions across the nation, according to the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina.
Research has increasingly linked the concussions that professional football players suffer with depression and dementia as well as neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and ALS.
Scientists say these players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — a condition that results from repeated head trauma, which is marked by a host of symptoms including impaired memory, personality changes, depression and dementia, as well as increased domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, and suicide.
Moreover, concerns are growing that these injuries start in childhood during recreational and high school sports, and can result from cumulative blows and shaking that don't necessarily have to rise to the level of a concussion.
The Brain Injury Association reports that more than 40 percent of high school athletes return to play before they are fully recovered, and that the number of youth athletes seen in hospital ERs for concussions doubled between 1997 and 2007.
"With the ongoing concerns of brain trauma in football, Innegra Technologies sought to collaborate with an educational institution with the resources to determine whether Innegra fibers can in fact provide better protection than what is on the market today," said Jeff Ettin, vice president of business development for the company.
Innegra, based in Greenville, develops high-performance fibers, while B&W Fiber Glass, of Shelby, N.C., manufactures technical glass fiber for a wide range of industries.
Because the hybrid Innegra yarns have been demonstrated to increase the impact resistance of fiber-reinforced composites, the researchers will determine if that can lead to better head protection. The composites are now used in hockey sticks, whitewater kayaks and other high-impact products.
"This study could very well change the entire thought process involved with the design of high-impact head protection and the materials used to manufacture helmets," DesJardins said.
Clemson's bioengineering department has clinical and research partnerships in sports medicine, biomedical device design and biomaterials development.
DesJardins and Dr. Gregory Batt, an instructor in the department of food, nutrition and packaging sciences, will conduct tests to evaluate and categorize a wide range of composite types to see whether they can reduce head injury in contact sports.
"We are starting panel-level testing of flat composite sheets in different configurations," said Elizabeth Cates, vice president of research and development at Innegra.
"Clemson is modifying and upgrading testing equipment that will be used to test flat panels and a prototype helmet."
Testing is expected to begin on a prototype helmet in the fall, and it could be a few years before any product is available, officials said.
While their goal is to develop the next generation of helmet materials for the sports industry, the companies also think their product could be used in other sporting equipment, in cars and other products where safety is a concern.