UOttawa Lab Breaks Ground in Concussion Research

Professor Blaine Hoshizaki

Given the popularity of hockey and football, players ranging in age from toddlers to adults are reaching for their equipment and hitting the ice or the field. However, participation in these sports comes at a price, namely the increased risk of serious head injuries.

Head injuries are particularly common in hockey players, and more often than not they involve a concussion. Trouble is, while severe traumatic head injuries are well understood and can largely be prevented by wearing helmets, the same cannot be said for concussive injuries. Professor Blaine Hoshizaki seeks to change this.

Professor Hoshizaki is a full professor at the School of Human Kinetics and Director of the Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory (NISL) in the Faculty of Health Sciences. He also chairs the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) committee for ice hockey product certification.

“A number of years ago, a football helmet company contacted me to evaluate their new helmet technology,” said Hoshizaki. He explained that no matter how much testing the company put into their helmets, the results remained the same: no technology could actually measure the risk of concussive injuries. “The safety performance of the helmet just wasn’t there. So I suggested they give me six months to determine if we could come up with a solution.”

Hoshizaki hired a student to help him with this endeavor. Together, they built a simple drop system to replicate an impact commonly associated with concussions in football. The success of this facility turned this research into a multi-year project, resulting in an impact management system that uses a collapsing structure. Their research allowed them to demonstrate the limitations of current helmets in protecting against concussions, since these helmets are designed primarily to protect against fatal injuries.

As the facility expanded, so did their research focus, to include the mechanism of head injuries in a child. “Because this impact is shorter in duration compared to how an adult hits their head in hockey, the characteristics are different and therefore the protection in the helmet has to be adjusted.” This discovery led Hoshizaki’s lab to develop a child brain model to better understand the mechanisms of head injuries in youth, which will hopefully lead to safer helmets for children under the age of 6.

The number of staff at the Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory has grown as well: Hoshizaki now has over 12 full-time students from a variety of disciplines, ranging in experience from undergraduates to master’s students, doctoral candidates and post doctorate holders.

The Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory is one of the few labs in the world to focus on head injuries in sport. The lab’s work has been cited in The Huffington Post, The New York Times, MacLean’s and The Globe and Mail, and has been featured on Fox Sports, BBC, Global News, CBC, and the Discovery Channel. Hoshizaki also made The Globe and Mail’s list of top 50 most influential people in Canadian sports. Even so, all this celebrity has not gone to his head: Hoshizaki says that nothing could be more gratifying than to see the results of their research applied to create helmets that prevent concussions as well as traumatic head injuries.

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