Is concussion certification for helmets almost here?

Everyone, from pro players to parents of pee-wees, is on the lookout for a hockey helmet that will provide better protection against brain injuries, including concussion.

“The big stigma against helmets is that they don’t protect against concussion,” says Brooklynn Knowles (Mechanical ’13). Due to improved diagnoses for brain injury in sport, many people are critical of helmets and wonder why manufacturers just don’t make better ones. “But what people don’t realize is that they were never designed for that. They were designed to save your life, and they have done a great job of that,” she says.

That helmets aren’t for concussion will shock hockey parents. But Knowles aims to help the technology catch up with our perceptions of it. She is doing her PhD in in the Department of Mechanical Engineering under the supervision of Chris Dennison with a focus on the biomechanics of head injury.

“I hope my research will let us certify helmets against potential brain injury,” she says. She wants to link certification to the prevention of severe focal injuries and well as diffuse brain injuries. “That’s what I’ve focused on, looking at the multiple impacts that each helmet may take. Ideally, when I am finished my research, the findings should extend to other types of helmets.” Even beyond guarding brains, the stakes are high.

With hockey helmets occupying a roughly $12-million corner of the sports equipment market, manufacturers and marketers look for every advantage. A couple of years ago, Reebok-CCM Hockey Inc. advertised a helmet, called the Resistance, and implied it provided concussion protection. As it turned out, the Resistance was futile and the company got a hard check from the federal government’s Competition Bureau for making unsubstantiated claims. According to a Globe and Mail report from 2016, Reebok-CCM wasn’t the first to find itself in the penalty box for such claims and, in a settlement, paid out nearly half a million dollars in equipment donations to youth organizations and $30,000 to pay the investigation’s costs.

Knowles hopes that developing a certification system will allow manufacturers to create better gear and back it up with verifiable claims. As a first step, “we hope to develop a pass/fail certification system,” she says, “so that we may be able to say with certainty that newly certified helmets limit the risk of brain injuries, including concussion.”

A hockey player growing up, Knowles has always been interested in the sports side of engineering—her undergrad design project was in protective headgear. She jumped at the chance to start a master’s program with Dennison. “But the scope of the project got bigger, so there was the option to scale it back or transfer it to a PhD.” She opted for the latter.

Knowles tests helmets on a drop tower that runs floor to ceiling, and the design group has a wall devoted to impacted equipment. “It’s our helmet graveyard,” she says. “There is no definitive test that says ‘yes, this helmet will protect against concussion.’” But Knowles is working on it, and aiming to have her results ready in June.