Sports equipment maker Bauer unveiled a collar-like device Wednesday that it says can protect against microscopic brain damage in athletes playing contact sports like hockey, football and soccer.
The NeuroShield collar is worn around the neck and applies a slight pressure that increases blood volume in the veins around the brain, helping to reduce the organ's movement inside the skull.
It's that "sloshing" of the brain inside the skull caused by a blow to the head that leads to damage to the delicate microstructures of the brain, including nerve fibres, as well as concussions.
Dr. Julian Bailes, head of neurosurgery at the NorthShore University Health System in Chicago, told a Toronto news conference Wednesday the human brain is tethered but floating in about seven millimetres of cerebral spinal fluid. That allows it to move inside the skull when the head is joltedby actions such as football tackles or hockey checks.
"It moves inside the skull, it tears fibres, it results in severe forms of diffuse axonal injury, it causes contusions or bleeding in the brain or causes the lethal subdural hematoma from tearing of veins," he explained.
"A helmet cannot prevent brain movement."
The NeuroShield slightly increases the amount of blood in the brain, filling up some of the space and reducing the amount of "slosh," said Bailes.
The idea of using a collar-like device began with Dr. David Smith, former chief of medicine at Reid Hospital in Indiana, who was inspired by the ability of woodpeckers to withstand millions of high-energy impacts over their lifetimes without suffering brain damage. That's because the bird's anatomy doesn't allow its brain to move within its skull.
Smith teamed up with Bailes and Dr. Joseph Fisher, an anesthesiology professor at the University of Toronto, to design a device that would mimic the woodpecker's anatomy and stabilize the human brain.
Greg Myer, a sports medicine researcher at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital who has spent the last four years conducting studies on the NeuroShield, said pressure on blood vessels from the device is like "putting a kink in the hose ... it creates an immediate backfill."
"So its filling up that free expandable space in the brain," he said, similar to what occurs when a person lies down.
"It's kind of (like) making an airbag for the brain."
In studies of high school-aged football and soccer player, his research team found that athletes who wore a NeuroShield had no significant structural brain changes on MRI imaging, while players who were not asked to don the collar had extensive damage to neural microstructures over time.
Repetitive head trauma has been shown to cause cumulative micro-brain damage in athletes in both amateur and professional sports.
However, it's not yet known whether the product can also prevent concussions in players who suffer head trauma. Determining that will require studies of large groups of athletes, Myer said.
"It's an important step forward, but we need to continue to do the research with this, looking at how this works on a larger scale across different athletes in different sports," he said.
Bauer has teamed up with scientists at U.S.-based Q30 Innovations, which acquired commercial rights to the underlying technology for NeuroShield. Bailes serves as medical adviser to the company and is a shareholder. Myer said he has no financial ties to Q30.
Former NHL player Mark Messier, a Bauer spokesman, told the news conference that he hopes the device will allow kids to remain engaged in sports and keep athletes of all ages and abilities safe from accumulated injuries to the brain.
"I think that's the beauty of this product, that it really can envelope that many different levels of players ... And to see a medical device enter into the protection and the safety aspect is very encouraging," he said in an interview.
"For me, being an ex-hockey player, the possibilities that we can make our game safer is very compelling."
The NeuroShield, available in eight sizes for children and adults aged seven and up, will retail in Canada for $199.