Understand The Science Behind The Name
Words Jon Gaffney Illustrations Courtesy of MIPS
“Ok, ready? Dropping again. Three, two, one ...” Click … BANG, as the head smashes sickeningly into the piling, three times in a row. We’re in Sweden, just outside of Stockholm in a nondescript, bunker-like brick building that houses MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System), which for the last 10 years has passionately focused on one of the unseen but brutal aspects of most head injuries: rotational impact.
In motorcycling or any number of contact sports and activities, helmet manufacturers have developed products that reduce the effects of blunt force trauma, using thicker shells, increased padding, varying foam densities to serve different purposes, and different helmet shapes best able to withstand blows and not get hung up in some way. However, while helmet construction continues to advance, so too does our understanding of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the protection against it that we seek.
Talking with neurosurgeon Dr. Hans von Holst, it’s immediately clear the man is driven by his passion for better understanding the brain so that we can better protect it. 72-year-old von Holst is the picture of hard work, intelligence, and gravitas, shaking our hand vigorously before launching into a presentation on brain injury, the factors responsible, and the discovery that changed his career directory over the last decade. He talks about how to best prevent TBI and reduce its severity when they, unfortunately, occur, using big words that only brain surgeons do. As complicated and confusing as the brain is, what happens when it’s injured is equally complex.
Throughout his medical career von Holst kept seeing instances where after saving a patient from brain swelling caused by an injury while wearing a helmet, the patient would still suffer devastating long-term consequences. These patients typically had damage to the dividing line between the two halves of their brains, which prompted von Holst to partner with the Swedish Royal Insitute of Technology (KTH) to deeply research the mechanics driving these head and neck injuries, and thus helmet construction and performance. A student at the Institute, Peter Halldin, began pursuing the first Ph.D. focused on head and neck injury mechanics as part of von Holst's research, and the partnership of Halldin and von Holst from their respective clinical and technical perspectives helped to uncover the rotational motion at the root of the symptoms von Holst had seen in his practice.
Many researchers would have stopped after uncovering the root issue, or strictly focused on further researching it, but von Holst and Halldin instead set out to create a technology that could minimize this rotational motion: MIPS. As is often the case with human technological advancements, the MIPS system was inspired by the brain's own internal protection, to reduce friction and allow the brain to move less in an impact. The first helmet utilizing MIPS was tested in 2000, and the technology soon made its way into bicycle helmets, snow skiing helmets, motocross helmets, and more.
MIPS is only now starting to enter into street motorcycle helmets because the forces associated with an on-road motorcycle crash exceed those of most other activities, and as such require that much more time for research, development, design, and testing. In street helmets equipped with MIPS, the low-friction layer allows for 10mm to 15mm of movement relative between the head and the helmet from any angle of impact. That's less than an inch but critical in reducing rotational motion.
When von Holst’s presentation is over, we head down to the lab to watch the helmets and crash test heads be dropped over and over again. The impacts are startling. When we think back on the concussions we've had, the foggy feeling for weeks on end, and the brutal cost of MRIs, it's hard not to think rotational motion should be part of standard testing for all helmets, moto or not. MIPS agrees, and they refuse exclusive arrangements, insisting that the technology be available to all helmets to get the greatest safety improvement for all. They’re riders, skiers, and cyclists themselves, and they understand the risks and the rewards of their chosen activity, and genuinely want to pursue a way to lower the risks for those activities.
When you buy your next helmet, look for the yellow MIPS logo.