NATICK. Mass. (Jan. 12, 2012) -- When Don Lee relaxes on his couch at home to take in the NFL playoffs on TV, chances are he watches the games a little bit differently than most people.
Lee pays particular attention to the helmets -- the shell materials, pad systems and chin straps. He watches to see how they absorb the violent impacts to prevent concussions on the playing field. Call it an occupational hazard.
Preventing head injuries is Lee's business. As a project engineer in the Headgear Thrust Area of the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, he focuses on keeping Soldiers from ever experiencing traumatic brain injuries, or TBI.
"TBI is specific, but it's very general," Lee said. "It's brain damage. If you think about, there's no such thing as mild brain injury. Any kind of brain injury is bad."
Soldiers and athletes share susceptibility to TBI. Whether caused by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in Afghanistan or high-speed collisions on the gridiron, brain injuries in both arenas have received a great deal of media coverage in recent years. Helmet technologies can make a major difference battling these injuries.
"Over the past five years or so, there's been more of a cooperative engagement between the military and the sporting industry and other industries, as well, simply because TBI is more of an issue now than it's ever been," Lee said. "There's been a lot more collaboration. It's more of a worldwide issue than just a military, self-contained issue."
The military, academia and the sports industry have an interest in sharing information on the subject, according to Lee.
"All three of those are tied together in one way or another," Lee said. "Because TBI is TBI, there's a lot of cooperative engagements between all three entities."
Lee mentioned a bi-annual head-protection summit presented by Program Executive Office Soldier, which he attended in 2011.
"Last year, Mike Haynes of the Patriots was there," said Lee of New England's Hall of Fame cornerback, who retired from professional football in 1989. "He did mention that he doesn't remember a day in his life where he didn't have a headache when he was playing.
"Five years ago, you'd never see a player sit out for a concussion. Nowadays, they're coming up with new rules and better equipment to protect players, because players are getting faster and stronger."
More recently, CBS Sports analyst Bill Cowher, speaking on "NFL Today," suggested that professional football should consult with the military on concussions. Lee was pleased to hear about that.
"We all know what the deal is," said Lee of researchers. "But when someone like Bill Cowher, who is looked on as a great coach, a Super Bowl-winning coach, when he's in that environment on TV, talking in front of millions of people, saying that kind of stuff is beneficial to everybody involved, and it promotes awareness. It promotes an understanding of the collaboration that needs to go on and is going on."
Lee noted that some design firms and testing facilities have begun testing both military and sports headgear. "Those are kind of the keys for information-sharing," he said.
One possible application of military technology to sports, said Lee, could be in future pad systems being developed for the Army's and Marine Corps' Combat Helmets.
"I'm currently working with a couple of contractors to look at developing revolutionary-type liner systems that would improve 'bump' performance over the currently standard-issued pads," Lee said. "What does that do for TBI? Well, if you could lessen the blow of transferring that energy from the impact to the brain, you can lessen the energy, if any, getting to the brain and causing any damages."
"The good news for (sports) is we're trying to balance weight, thickness and energy-absorbing efficiency of the pad systems in a confined area," Lee explained. "For the NFL and (other sports), they can use a much greater area due to the increased standoff of the helmet to the head. So if we find something that works great in a half-inch-thick pad, they can use it in their 1-inch, 1 ¾-inch, maybe a 2-inch pad that will absorb more energy. So there's definitely correlation there."
While strides are being made on bump protection, Lee admitted that truly understanding the causes of TBI poses a more difficult problem.
"We're making more progress in the bump-protection area, simply because we understand the cause better," Lee said. "Once we understand how these events specifically damage the brain, then we can look at ways to protect it further."
Soldiers and athletes will remain linked in TBI research, though the threats facing their headgear are different.
"In football, you're talking human speed," Lee said. "For hockey, it's a little different because they're faster skating. Plus, you've got the puck, too.
"They're not so much worried about ballistics," said Lee of sports. "They're not worried about those types of threats. So they can make a plastic shell (and) put big, thick pads in it that can take multiple hits over and over and over again."
Military helmet technology must consider blast and ballistic threats.
"Our threat is worse than their threat, simply because the damage is going to be greater," Lee said. "Two guys running into each other at full speed is not as dangerous as a guy in a vehicle driving over an IED, and the IED flips (it) over, and now this guy's banging his head on the inside of the vehicle as it's rolling over."
Everybody benefits, however, through the combined efforts against TBI, no matter what its cause.
"It's not just military. It's not just sports," Lee said. "There's some overlap there (in which) experience and lessons learned can be shared. It's something that's being actively investigated, and we're not alone in it. We're looking at it from the basic-research level. So are sports."
The stakes couldn't be higher.
"Once you have a TBI, it never goes away," Lee said. "We're just trying to prevent those injuries. Medical professionals always say once you get one, you're much more susceptible to getting another and another, because once the brain is damaged, it doesn't repair itself."