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Reebok, Cambridge firm team up on concussions

Concern over athletes, like Bruins forward Nathan Horton, who have suffered multiple concussions has increased in recent years.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

Concern over athletes, like Bruins forward Nathan Horton, who have suffered multiple concussions has increased in recent years.

Reebok International Ltd. has teamed up with a small Cambridge technology company to make a device that fits under sports helmets to record hits to the head and help monitor athletes for possible concussions.

The device — a collection of flexible semiconductor sensors made by MC10 Inc. — is contained in a mesh skullcap made to be worn beneath protective headgear, be it for hockey, football, or another contact sport. It is expected to be commercially available next year.

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Concern over repetitive concussions — especially among young athletes — has mounted in recent years, as evidence shows that such trauma can lead to later problems, including chronic headaches, depression, and serious memory loss. The issue gained new attention last week when the Pop Warner youth football league suspended two coaches after a game in Central Massachusetts where five players between 10 and 12 years old suffered concussions.

Each year, an estimated 159,000 children between the ages of 5 and 19 visit emergency rooms for sports- and recreation-related brain injuries, according to the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As we know, head injuries are of the greatest concern ­today, and there is still much to be learned in this area,” Philippe Dube, a general manager at Reebok, said in a statement. “This product is a significant step forward in this process.”

MC10 and Canton-based Reebok began collaborating about two years ago. It quickly became apparent to them that MC10’s technical expertise in flexible or “conformable” electronics could be combined with Reebok’s sports know-how to create a device to indicate when someone has received a blow to the head.

Bill McInnis, head of ­advanced innovation at Reebok, called the gizmo an “extra set of eyes.”

“You don’t always see everything going on out on the field, and an athlete won’t always tell you,” McInnis said, but this ­device will.

Neither Reebok nor MC10 representatives would describe the monitoring device in detail.

“If you’ve seen some football players take their helmets off on the sidelines and they’re wearing a skullcap underneath the helmet, that’s sort of what it looks like,” McInnis said. “The conformable electronics fit inside there and wrap around the head.”

Concussion specialist Dr. Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University, said there are about eight or 10 devices on the market that monitor hits to the head via technology hidden in an ear piece, chin strap, or headband.

Cantu lauded the gadgets as warning devices that let coaches and others recognize when a player has been injured and should be removed from a game. Cantu said such devices could help limit the number of concussions suffered by athletes, but he was cautious about the extent of information they might provide.

“These are not devices which are devised to determine if somebody has a concussion or not,” he said. “Rather they are a device that allows you to know that someone has had a hit to the head.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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