Could bighorn sheep inspire better football helmets?
Tackling football concussions head-on. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
Concussions have been plaguing football, and materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez says that bighorn sheep could inspire solutions.
The horns are made out of a protein called keratin. Keratin is a very spongy, elastic kind of material and it absorbs some of the force.
She says it also spreads the impact out over time.
When a collision happens, the horns give a little bit and so that increases the time of impact, so the force that’s translated through the horns, through the head to the brain reduces.
If we decided to have football players with helmets with horns, there would be total buy-in, and if they said it’s also going to prevent concussions, then I think we’ve got a win-win.
I wouldn’t say to add the horns, but what we are saying is adopt some of the materials that would be in keratin into the helmet.
Ramirez is author of the sports science book Newton’s Football. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.
Making Sense of the Research
Scientists often look to the natural world for solutions to some of our most pressing problems. They study everything, from fireflies to elephants, to try to unlock the secrets of how organisms function. In this case, scientists like Ainissa Ramirez are studying bighorn sheep to try to discover how they are able to withstand the force of ramming their heads together in the hopes of helping prevent concussions among football players.
According to Ramirez, it seems that the reason bighorn sheep can remain unharmed is because their brains are naturally protected with mechanisms that slow the return of blood from the head to the body—increasing blood volume that fills their brains’ vascular trees (the branches of arteries and veins in the brain), creating the Bubble Wrap effect. This means that the sheep's brains can't be shaken around as much, lessening the risk of concussions.
Additionally, the bighorn sheeps' horns are made up of bone covered with keratin, an elastic protein material that allows horns to give a little under impact. In addition to distributing the impact of the force, the flexible horn also lengthens the duration of the impact, which lessens the force.
Human brains, however, don't have the natural protections that the bighorn sheep do. Since our brains don't fill our skulls, we risk concussion when our brains hit our skulls during sudden stops and the impacts experienced in contact sports. Wearing helmets helps protect athletes from getting fractures and lacerations, but the helmets don't protect them from getting concussions. So researchers have been trying to find ways to decrease the incidence of concussions.
What that may mean in terms of the types of equipment athletes would wear remains to be seen. One researcher, Dr. Gregory Myer of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, believes that what may be developed may not look like a helmet but could be something quite different. He also thinks we shouldn't focus so much on managing or diagnosing concussions but rather on preventing them in the first place.
Now try and answer these questions:
- Why do you think scientists study the natural world to find solutions to our problems?
- How is it that bighorn sheep can remain unharmed from the act of ramming their heads together?
- Why are humans more susceptible to concussions than bighorn sheep?
- From what kinds of injuries do helmets protect athletes? How do they not protect athletes?
- Can you imagine what kind of technology may be developed to help protect athletes from concussions? If so, what would it look like?
To learn more about how science is involved in sports, you may want to check out these resources:
In Sprinter Advantage, you can hear why Olympic runners closest to the start gun may get a slight advantage.
With Fastest Swimsuits, learn how a team of scientists has developed what may be the world's fastest swimsuit.
- Nervous System
- Science of the Summer Olympics: Engineering in Sports
- Science Update: Spotlight on the Brain
- Science of the Summer Olympics: Designing Safety Helmets
In addition to the Science Updates mentioned, you can extend the concepts in this lesson by helping your students explore how a scientist is applying research on animal locomotion for practical human uses in Organisms in Motion: Practical Applications of Biological Research.
In Skin and Sports, students learn about the importance of proper protection from common skin conditions when they engage in sports-related activities.