Innovative Purdue Neurotrauma Group takes to the gridiron to promote player safety

Professor Eric Nauman of the Purdue Neurotrauma Group takes to the gridiron to promote player safety. The group is making tremendous strides as they work to develop new methods to protect young athletes from brain trauma from concussive injuries.

A team of Purdue researchers has made headlines and rewritten rulebooks this year as they conduct studies on brain trauma and concussions in young football players.

Eric Nauman, professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering, is conducting research on the central nervous system and musculoskeletal trauma as part of the Purdue Neurotrauma Group (PNG). The group also includes Purdue assistant athletic trainer Larry Leverenz and Dr. Thomas Talavage, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The PNG monitored high school football practices, using helmet sensors to measure the force generated by collisions between players, monitoring the impact on the head. The group discovered that concussions are commonly caused not by a single blow to the head, but by repeated contact over time. Repeated, undiagnosed brain trauma can cause severe brain impairment. Many athletes even show changes in brain activity due to repeated collisions even though they display no other symptoms of concussion.

“In the NFL, they don’t really hit until the regular season starts,” Nauman said. “If you’re a lineman and you are on the field for 50 plays, you take 50 blows to the head over the course of that week. High school players don’t just hit during games, they also hit throughout the course of the week – at least two practices a week.”

Nauman suggested that coaches keep track of how often their players sustain collisions in practice and limit players that have taken a certain number of hits by holding them out of games or practices. The group’s research has motivated Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, to announce recent rule changes to protect young athletes and uphold player safety.

Under the new rules, which took effect in August, coaches are required to limit player contact to no more than a third of their total practice time. Coaches are also instructed to eliminate drills that involve full-speed, head-to-head blocking and tackling from more than three yards away. Coaches are permitted to run full-speed drills, but players must approach each other at an angle, which limits head-on collisions.

The change to youth rules is part of a much larger campaign to enforce player safety and protect athletes from long-term health problems. The NFL is in the process of battling lawsuits from over 2,000 former players, and parents across the country have voiced concerns about letting their children play organized football.

“Football helmets are designed to protect the skull and the face, but not the brain,” said Nauman. “We can build a better helmet, but we are probably going to have to find ways to reduce the number of times that boys and young men subject their brains to excessive forces.”