Though Dr. Vernon Jayaweera’s boxing days are long gone, observing the game from outside the ring for over 50 years has given him a fresh angle on the sport. 20 years into his career as a medical official at boxing matches in Sri Lanka and abroad, he realised that “wearing a helmet can cause more [...]

Sunday Times 2

‘Brainguard’: Protecting tomorrow’s generation of sportspeople


Though Dr. Vernon Jayaweera’s boxing days are long gone, observing the game from outside the ring for over 50 years has given him a fresh angle on the sport. 20 years into his career as a medical official at boxing matches in Sri Lanka and abroad, he realised that “wearing a helmet can cause more harm than not wearing one.” Helmets were banned in the boxing ring only in 2013, the global boxing community finally catching up with what he freely advocated 30 years ago.

Dr. Vernon Jayaweera with his Brainguard model. Pic by Anuradha Bandara

“I must have shocked people,” he smiles, recalling the many audiences of medical professionals and sportspeople he proposed the thought to. Not content with highlighting the issue, he also devised a solution.

His design for a novel helmet which he calls ‘Brainguard’ was patented in 2000 in Sri Lanka and the international patent application is currently being processed. “The device which I have invented will prevent excessive movements of the head in the horizontal or vertical planes and hence prevent the violent movements of the brain inside the skull thereby preventing the damage to the brain in conditions such as boxing, motorcycle riding accidents, skiing, cricket , soccer, horse racing or in any condition where a helmet is recommended to prevent brain injuries,” he says.
His own boxing stint was successful yet short. It was after cricket practice that he first saw the sport in action. He tried it out that afternoon and was made to take part in the next day’s inter-house matches. Boxing soon replaced all other sports during his last years in school after knocking-out three boys at the inter- house tournament.

After three years of winning the Indo-Sri Lankan boxing tournament, he was chosen to represent Sri Lanka at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. “I didn’t go because I would have to miss one year of Medical College” he says a little regretfully.

In fact, he says, it was observing boxers getting knocked-out that brought to light a serious problem. “Some boxers are difficult to knock-out, and some get knocked-out easily.” The two types of boxers in the earlier days of the sport were called ‘glass-jawed boxers’ and ‘cast iron-jawed boxers’ he explains. This was not all about jaw strength, it was according to his observations, everything about the boxer’s neck. Boxers with longer or weaker necks were more likely to black-out than those with average to shorter or more muscular necks.

Dr. Jayaweera returned to Sri Lanka after officiating the Asian Games 1986 with this revelation. “I suspected it all along, but I decided to do some research on it.” Collecting data from contestants at the matches that followed, he presented a research paper that year at the World Organisation of National Colleges, Academies (WONCA) conference. The positive feedback he says was along the lines of affirming his theory.
His invention of the Brainguard, he explains, is based on: a) the pathogenesis of a knock down in boxing as described by the scientific team of the British Medical Association in 1986 regarding brain damage in boxing and; (b) the movements of the skull ( head ) on the Facet Joints of the neck ( on the first and second vertebrae of the cervical spine).

Elaborating on the pathogenesis of the knockdown in boxing, he says, the brain is a jelly- like tissue suspended freely inside the skull bone and when the head is subjected to a violent force such as a boxing punch to the face, the skull with the brain inside it will move backwards due to the momentum created by the punch. The brain will tend to herniate into the foramen magnum, which is the largest opening in the skull bone, which will result in microscopic or macroscopic injuries to the mid-brain. Such injuries resulting in haemorrhages, could cause even immediate death or a few hours or days after the blow. It may even cause chronic cerebral morbidities, such as punch drunk syndrome in Boxers.

Explaining the movement of the skull on Facet Joints, he says, the base of the skull has two bony prominences called Condyles. The first cervical vertebra has two facets ( circular depressions ), and the condyles fit into these facets to form two ball and socket joints, namely Occipito Atlas Joints. These joints permit the movement of the skull in the vertical plane .

The second cervical vertebra has a vertical prominence, namely Odontoid Process (or Dens ) This Odontoid Process will fit into a opening in the first cervical vertebra to form a joint, called the Atlanto occipital joint which permits the movement of the skull in the horizontal plane. The movements of the skull are controlled by the muscles of the neck (cervical muscles). “My research study which was presented at the WONCA (World Organisation of National Colleges and Academes) Conference in 1986 in London U,K, proved that boxers with long necks and those with thin less muscular necks were more liable to be knocked down in boxing,” he says.

The main feature of his invention is that the helmet part of this device does not rest on the head hence the weight of the head is not increased . Considering the equation E= ½ m.v² , any helmet worn on the head adds to the weight of the head and hence the momentum created in motion is greater than when not wearing a helmet. “This is the main reason which I attributed to the increase in brain damage in boxing – when a helmet is worn directly on the head. The Brainguard will not add any weight to the head as it only surrounds the head without touching the head, being fixed to the waist and torso. All forces directed at the helmet are transferred to the waist and torso . ”

The Brainguard cradles the wearer’s head without resting on it, leaving vision and mobility unimpaired. It extends down the spine and is neatly strapped across the wearer’s waist. By strapping the vertebral spine from neck down to the pelvis , the device will also afford protection to the spinal cord.

Though it looks slightly bulkier than the ordinary cap-type helmet, his model however is on the lighter side and allows more free movement. Blue-print sketches were sent to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO,) by local authorities upon Dr. Jayaweera’s submission. The technicality of the innovation meant the papers were shuttled from Geneva to the University of Cardiff which while confirming his idea is a first, also saw logic in it as compatible with their own research.

Dr. Jayaweera is convinced that with slight modifications the innovation can even be beneficial to other sports like skiing, cycling and cricket where the fatal injury caused to Australian cricketer Phil Hughes “could have easily been avoided had this model been in use.”

It is of vital importance in babies transported in baby car seats, he adds . A baby transported in a baby car seat carries greater risk of brain damage than a baby carried on the lap of a passenger due to the exaggeration of flexion and extension of the head by strapping the baby’s torso to the baby car seat,” he says.

At a stage where he’s content to settle for a few rounds of golf as opposed to the more energetic ones in the ring, Dr. Jayaweera’s project has consumed much of his time. He finds himself working even in the early hours of the morning “I don’t realise that it’s about two or three in the morning,” he smiles.

Waiting for the green light from WIPO on the international patent, the next step for this unique device is production. “I’m not very good at going about this step,” he admits. Despite being able to sell his design locally for production since 2000 currently except for the rather rudimentary model made over the last few weeks his idea is still on the drawing board. He feels it would be beneficial for his design to be developed into useable gear, if only to protect tomorrow’s generation of sportspeople.

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