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The great American quarterback

The great American quarterback

At school I played in the rugby team, but at my school you only played...
At school I played in the rugby team, but at my school you only played rugby if you were rubbish at football. We were so bad – at one point my captain got so confused he ran the wrong way down the pitch. I saw him run past me and delicately put the ball down across our own line, thus scoring points for the other side. This may have been the first time in the history of rugby that such a feat has been achieved. In fact, it wasn’t a feat so much as an anti-feat.

I tell you this only to explain that I am not used to the triumphs and kudos that come from sporting achievements or the all-round adoration that is attached to the stars of sports.

However rather later in life than it comes to most, in this programme I was to become the quarter back star of an American football team.

I was there to test a new safety device which is supposed to reduce head injuries. It comes in the unlikely and rather underwhelming format of a sticker.

The lab behind the invention is based at the Simon Fraser University Mechatronics Department – which is mechanical and electrical engineering combined. Daniel Abram has been busy carrying out research to see if it’s possible to reduce injury to that fragile organ, the brain, which is made up of multi-billion neurons.

I have to say when I was told we were visiting the lab to see a company that has invented a sticker that you put onto a helmet that improves its safety, I was very, very sceptical that it would work.

Daniel told me there’s no magic to his team’s invention which is called the Brainshield sticker. It is all, he says, based on science.

To test the device, we put an American football helmet in a clamp and dropped a heavy block on it to see what happened. It was imitating the effect that a far too cool Canadian teenager might have on me when he jumped on me to wrest a football from my hands.

In the lab under test conditions, we could see what happened with the impact on a dummy head inside a helmet without the Brainshield sticker. The head itself rotated causing potential damage to the brain. Once we put an ordinary sticker on the helmet and repeated the experiment, much to my surprise, there was a lot less rotation of the dummy head. That reduced the sharp twisting to the brain that leads to injury. The spread of force also means there’s much less compression to the brain.

The sticker is made of microengineered layers which are stacked on top of each other. Once it receives an impact, the layers move across each other. By moving, the sticker doesn’t allow the phenomenon that causes that sharp twisting of the brain. Lots of layers within the sticker all shear apart to absorb the twisting motion. Essentially, the sticker takes the pain and your brain doesn’t. At least that’s the claim.

There are currently no independent research results for Brainshield, but they’re on the way. So having tested it in the lab, in the spirit of Horizons, my producer thought it would be a wonderful idea for me to put the sticker to the test on the field. We headed to Handsworth High and their head coach Jay Prepchuk – who was about to put me through my paces as the teams newest yet oldest Quarterback.

He helped me into my kit and then much to my surprise – he started hitting me around the head with the words "This last test is just to kinda smack you. How does that feel?" “Well, you’re hitting me in the head! Stop doing that, it’ll be fine!” I replied in what I hoped was a suitable sense of British reserve.

Jay says the stickers have helped reduce the number of head injuries the team has had. That itself is not enough to prove the value of them – but the evidence we saw was certainly intriguing and looked like it would help.

One thing is for sure, the stickers might save your brain, they don’t make a middle aged Englishman a great American footballer.

Follow the adventure @adamshawbiz
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