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Carter: Concussion-prevention collars could be a game-changer

Earlier this week, during an office discussion about the inconvenience of the new Westminster Starbucks location for reporters coming to our office from Sykesville or south of the Md. 140 and Md. 97 intersection where it is located, we came up with a brilliant idea we're sure would make us all millionaires if we only had the capital: a full-service gas station and drive-through coffee bar where you could "fuel your car and fuel yourself" at the same time (trademark that). Alas, we soon went back to toiling over our computers writing the news of the day.

OK, it isn't an idea that could change the world, but it's certainly one I suspect a lot of people would take advantage of.

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A few days later, I did hear about an idea that could change the world — at least, the world of sports — as it relates to concussions.

During a conversation with Sheriff Jim DeWees, who had recently made a trip to Ohio with other members of his staff to a lab that is working on modifications for some tactical gear for the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, he mentioned that the place he visited was also working on something called "the Q Collar," which is designed to help athletes avoid concussions.

The sheriff explained how it worked, and when I got back to the office, I did some more research. I must say, it's fascinating and could be a game-changer, if you pardon the pun, when it comes to the concussion issues plaguing athletes, especially those who play contact sports like football.

Over the past decade or so, there have been multiple redesigns of helmets and other headgear to try to stave off concussions. The problem is, no amount of padding outside the skull can prevent the real problem: Concussions are caused during a collision when your brain sloshes around inside your head and smashes the skull. Additional padding provided by helmets protects against skull fractures — important, for sure — but not concussions.

But how can you get more padding inside your skull to prevent damage to the brain?

Believe it or not, the idea actually originated when someone suggested to Dr. David Smith, a research scientist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, that "If somebody can figure out how a woodpecker can smash its head into a tree and fly away without a headache, we'd probably have the problem solved," Smith recalled to a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter.

Sure enough, when Smith began to study woodpeckers, he came upon a interesting fact: A woodpecker has a long tongue and bones wrapping around their heads that, Smith theorizes, compress the woodpecker's neck veins, increasing the amount of blood between the brain and the skull. The additional fluid blankets the woodpecker's brain, keeping it from repeatedly smashing into the skull, much like bubble wrap or other packaging material would protect a glass object from breaking during shipping.

But how could that be replicated in humans?

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Smith reached out to Dr. Julian Bailes (portrayed by Alec Baldwin in last year's feature film "Concussion"), and the pair created a collar that, despite its name, is a "U" shape that fits around a player's neck, leaving the windpipe exposed, and lightly constricts the jugular vein. Doing so actually increases the amount of blood in the brain, giving it less room to slosh around in the skull and reducing the risk of traumatic brain injury.

The two fashioned similar bands for lab rats first, and testing showed that the rats with the bands had 80 percent less damage than those without. Previous tests to add padding, akin to helmets, on the lab rats had resulted in essentially no change in the amount of damage sustained.

More recently, the collars were willingly tested by high school football and hockey players. The players' brains were scanned before and after the season to look for markers of damage to the brain. About half the players on each team wore the collars during the season. Two studies that came out over the summer showed that the players who wore the collars showed no significant signs of brain injuries versus players who didn't, according to an article on Gizmodo.com.

Additional tests are occurring, and it's still probably a few years before the Q Collar is ready for the marketplace. It's all pending approval from the federal government, too. However, Performance Sports Group, which makes Bauer hockey equipment and Cascade lacrosse helmets, has invested $7 million in the product.

If it's proven effective, the Q Collar could be, for contact sports, akin to what the seat belt and air bags are to motor vehicles.

Who would've thought such a great idea could come from a bird brain?

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Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at wayne.carter@carrollcountytimes.com.

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