Engineering research team works to develop smart helmet to prevent traumatic brain injuries

Aerospace engineering graduate students Arthur “Tiger” Koster, left, and Aaron Jackson set up an impact experiment using “phantom” head model. The research team is studying how impact forces and motions from the impactors are transmitted to the interior of the phantom.

Ashfaq Adnan, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, and his research team are developing a smart helmet with improved protection capabilities and the ability to detect brain health.

A February 2020 study by Duke University discovered that despite advancements in protection against most head injuries, modern helmets perform either at or below the protection level of helmets developed in World War I against certain types of traumatic brain injuries.

The research team received a grant of about $1.1 million from the Office of Naval Research in February, which will be distributed over a three-year period to develop the improved helmet.

Postdoctoral research associate Khandakar Mahmud said Adnan's project aims to develop a helmet capable of mitigating traumatic brain injuries caused by specific types of shocks, such as laser-induced injury, ultrasound or blunt impact.  

The research team also wants to include new features in their helmet, such as ones that can assess if the wearer is experiencing traumatic brain injury, Adnan said.

The nature of the experiment does not allow the use of a live test subject, Adnan said. Instead, his team will use a sophisticated head model mimicking human physiology – the skull, brain tissue and skin – called a true phantom head model.

Using a model instead of a living subject means there is added emphasis to collect the proper medical data, Adnan said.

“We need to have a very good understanding of the critical forces and motions that lead to traumatic injury because our design will be based on [that] data,” he said.

Postdoctoral research associate Fuad Hasan said assessing brain injuries requires the consideration of two major fields of study.

“One is the biology, or the biological responses from the materials since it's alive material, and then we have the mechanical responses,” he said.

Hasan said reducing the complexity of their modeling to view the brain in mechanical terms allows them to quantify brain trauma.

“If we consider the brain as just a material then I think we have the fundamental understanding of the mechanical responses of the brain tissue,” he said.

Arthur Koster, aerospace engineering graduate and research assistant, said the current lab setup involves subjecting the head model to forces and assessing the data reported through the sensors.

“We [have] the goal of capturing the acceleration of a human head and correlating that to some damaging pressures that can develop inside,” he said.

This is a natural application of the team's knowledge of force, motion and material properties, Adnan said.

The smart helmet will introduce a new sensor technique and be constructed of different layers of 3D printed materials, Fuad said.

“It should be very strong, very lightweight [and] able to withstand different types of loading,” he said.

The impact of the team's research does not just apply to military situations, Koster said. The technology has possible applications elsewhere.

“Football helmets and hockey players also have a lot of different types of injuries that can be sensed using smart technology like this,” he said.

Richie Daru, aerospace engineering graduate student, said that in the same way standard phones transitioned to smartphones, the team hopes to make the same leap with the smart helmet.  

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