Helmets Sense The Hard Knocks

Wireless device will let coaches pull football players before they suffer brain damage

5 min read

In the United States' National Football League, SUV-sized men are paid astronomical sums to delight stadium crowds with their ability to run down and demolish the opposing teams' ball carriers. The automotive analogy is quite apt. When they collide, the forces that thickly muscled behemoths such as the San Diego Chargers' Shawne ”Lights Out” Merriman exert on each other regularly exceed 100 times the force of gravity--the kind of jarring that passengers experience in a car crash. The result is roughly 230 000 concussions among professional, college, and youth football players each year.

Concern is growing over the long-term effects of skull-rattling tackles where a brain injury occurs, but the signs--including headache, nausea, and short-term memory loss--are difficult for coaches and trainers to spot; the injuries are unlikely to be reported by players because of the gladiator mentality that makes them keen to shake off any injury and get back into the game.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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