NASCAR and Electric Cars, Part II

It’s not quite January, but it’s close enough. The month is named for Greek God Janus, who has two faces: one looks to the past and one that looks to the future. The off-season is a natural time to look both ways. Let’s look forward, not at 2018, but even further. Let’s look at the future of NASCAR (and maybe motorsports in general). It involves an always-touch topic with NASCAR fans: changes to the car. In particular, the possibility of electric race cars in NASCAR.

Terminology. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are vehicles that run entirely on motors with no internal combustion engine (ICE). There are only about a dozen models of EV you can buy in this country. Hybrids use a combination of drive technologies, usually an internal combustion engine (ICE) and supplemental motors. Some, like the newest Prius, can be switched to a true EV mode, but mode automatically call on the engine or the motor when it makes sense for the car. There are a lot of hybrids available, including the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight, and hybrid versions of classics like the Camry, the Escalade, the Malibu, the Accord and so on.

Attitudes Toward Cars are Changing

We are motorsports fans fundamentally because we like cars. But the world is changing and so are people’s relationships with cars. Young people prefer calling an Uber to driving themselves. Some don’t even bother getting drivers’ licenses. And young people are more concerned with how cars impact the planet. They produce greenhouse gases (which contribute to climate change) and particulate matter (which contributes to air pollution.) Petroleum is a limited resource and the market is volatile. Remember $4/gallon gas? It wasn’t that long ago.

Race Tech is a UK magazine. It’s publisher, William Kimberley, wrote an editorial contrasting the attitude toward cars in the United States vs. that in the rest of the world while he was here, visiting SEMA.

I cannot help but wonder whether we are seeing a complete divergence when it comes to motorsport between Europe and North America… mature technologies (ie the internal combustion engine) is simply not under threat here [the US]. I cannot hear the mayor of a major city, even in California, coming out against the car as we are experiencing in the UK and Europe.

Kimberley’s visit to the States was in October 2017. Just this month, California Assemblymember Phil Ting announced he would introduce a bill to prohibit vehicles that use fossil fuels from traveling on the state’s roads, effective in 2040. California Governor Jerry Brown asked the California Air Resources Board (which has the ironic acronym CARB) to develop a plan to allow only zero-emission vehicles to be sold in the state. They haven’t set a time scale, but it would likely be 2030.

Let’s say they enact one or both of the two laws mentioned above. Does that mean the end of motorsports in California? Not because of the law. You’re not buying racecars in California, nor will you be racing on state roads. But those aren’t the only issues.

Why Are Cars Targets?

California is considering these extreme measures because they don’t want Los Angeles to turn into Beijing, where air pollution is so bad it takes an estimated three years from their life expectancies.

The air pollution in Beijing is bad enough to shut the entire city down on some days. Beijing (and London, Paris, Athens and Delhi) are trying to mitigate the problem by only allowing in cars with even or odd license plates in on alternate days, or eliminating cars from certain areas of the city all together.

The good news is that it works: air pollution goes down when these measures are implemented. The bad news is that cars become the villains. The map below shows laws already enacted or in process that prohibit the sale of gas- or diesel-powered cars, or limits where they can be driven. The cities with stars (including Seattle, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Mexico City and Quito, Ecuador in this hemisphere) plan to ban gas and diesel cars from “large parts of their cities” by 2030.

 

Why Do We Care What China and India Do?

Cars sell in a global marketplace, whether you like it or not. That won’t change. About 78.6 million cars will be sold around the world this year. We (the US) are a huge market: 17.1 million of those will be bought the US. But the US market isn’t as big as, or have the growth potential of China or India. We constitute 324 million people out of 7.6 billion people on the planet. That’s 4.3%. China has 1.4 billion people (18.4%) and India 1.3 billion (17.1%). The EU is 6.7%.

China is investing heavily in Electric Vehicles.

  • China makes and sells more Electric Vehicles (EVs) than any other country
  • Chinese buyers purchased more than 3x as many EVs than American buyers in 2017 — and more than the rest of the world’s buyers all together.
  • The government spent $1.3 billion to convert 70,000 Beijing taxis to electric.
  • China wants to cut down on the huge amounts of petroleum they import each year

How does that affect us?

  • China will ban the production and sale of gas-powered cars in the country soon (possibly 2030)
  • China taxes import cars at 10x the rate we do here: Chinese buyers purchase more GM cars than Americans do.

That’s why GM and Ford have to invest in electric and hybrid vehicles as well. In addition to the heft of the Chinese market, every major city is struggling with the same problems. China wants technological leadership in EVs because that’s the marker of the future.

  • Honda, one of the largest internal combustion engine producers, plans to introduce a line of EVs in 2022 with batteries that charge in 15 minutes
  • Ford is introducing F-150 hybrids and Mustang hybrids in 2020
  • GM announced plans for 20 new EVs by 2023 (2 within the next 18 months)
  • Volvo will convert its entire lineup to EVs and hybrids and stop making ICE vehicles.

How Will that Impact Racing?

I wrote about Bill Nye’s suggestion that NASCAR should go electric in 2016. While I’m as worried as anyone about climate change and air pollution, I found his proposal misguided. Nye didn’t understand the sport’s history, the fans’ culture nor did he understand that it would be far from “simple” (his word) for NASCAR to convert to EVs. He argued that NASCAR could do a lot to shift societal attitudes toward EVs, but NASCAR has never been on the forefront of automotive technology.

Auto manufacturers got involved in motorsports because motorsports provided a testbed to showcase and prove their products. If your car survived the 24 hours of Le Mans, it ought to survive the streets of London or the French countryside. That’s the history of European motorsports.

NASCAR is different. NASCAR has contributed a great deal of safety knowledge, but has had little impact on street cars because the technology hasn’t kept up with street cars. There is a lot of talk every year about getting more manufacturers into the sport. If you look at their global bottom line, it doesn’t make sense for them to put money into creating an 8-cylinder pushrod engine with two valves per cylinder and throttle body fuel injection. NASCAR is advertising for manufacturers.

I know they’re already racing in Formula E and a number of other electric-car series. Heck, ALMS was racing them a decade ago. They’ve had to contort the rules to compensate for the primary weakness of electric racecars: the lack of a battery that can either run at high speed for a long time or could re-charge quickly. (Nye suggested pit stops in which the batteries could be changed, neglecting the fact that the batteries are really, really heavy.) In Formula E, pit stops consist of the driver changing cars.

But that problem is on the way to being solved. At some point, Chevy, Ford and Toyota are going to have really cool-looking, fast EVs and/or hybrids and they’re going to want to push them instead of ICE cars. That’s when it will make sense for NASCAR to consider EVs.

Can EVs Race in NASCAR?

Let’s assume they’ve solved the battery problem. What else has to change?

Looks

Here’s the primary problem with EVs at present: They’re ugly. I am not going to pay. You would have to pay me to watch Priuses race. But this…

 

It’s a BMW all-electric sedan with a range of 373 miles, a top speed of 120 mph and 0 to 60 in a little less than four seconds. This all-electric Porsche will be available in 2019. Insiders suggest it should have up to 670 horsepower, a top speed of 155 mph and 0 to 60 in the mid 3-seconds.

There’s no reason an electric motor can’t go into a stock car. So if your objection is that you like the way the cars look now, don’t worry. We can still have Darlington throwback weekend, with chassis from the 60’s and motors from the 2020s.

Performance

Believe it or not, electric cars might address the biggest gripe NASCAR fans and drivers have right now: the inability to pass.

Instant Peak Torque  Passing requires acceleration. Acceleration requires torque. EVs produce peak torque at zero rpm. This is why 0-60 mph times for EVs are stellar. And let’s face it, going 100 mph isn’t as much fun as accelerating to 100 mph in five seconds.

The torque an ICE produces ramps up slowly with the rpms, as shown below. It reaches a peak, then falls off. An electric car has maximum torque over a wide range of rpms. (It does fall off at higher rpms, but when you’re running at high speed, you’re not accelerating very much, so you don’t need the torque there.)

Reliability Electric cars don’t require complex transmissions and multiple gears. This allows for lower weight in the drivetrain and fewer parts to break during a race. Also, most electric cars use a single gear, eliminating the time-honored NASCAR problem of a broken gear shifter that requires the driver to use a pair of locking pliers to shift to get off pit road. (Note that shifting gears also takes time when you do it manually, so your acceleration off pit road, for example, will be faster.)

Control. The throttle control on an ICE is done using a physical throttle, which controls how much air gets in. But the throttle isn’t linear. If you go from foot off the gas to 10% depressed, you get a very different change than if you go from 90% to 100% throttle. An EV throttle is controlled by software. It’s another dimension of ‘the box’. How do you set it up so it works best for your driver?

Less Brakes Required. When you release throttle, instead of the motor driving the wheels, the wheels drive the motor (which re-charges the battery). This means you don’t have to use your physical brakes as hard. You can use smaller brakes, which means less weight, and because you use them less, less chance of brake failure. batteries are heavy: that’s an issue; however, The batteries are made of many cells, which mean you can package the batteries in a lot of different ways. You could use the battery to keep the CG low, use cooling under car to keep batteries cool.

Batteries This is a mixed bag. EV batteries are heavy. The Tesla Model S has 1,200 lbs of batteries. This is a problem in sports car and open-wheel racing because the cars are so light. It’s not such a problem in NASCAR because the cars are so much heavier and you can also take advantage of the lighter drivetrains and brakes.

But there’s actually an advantage to the batteries being heavy. When you say ‘battery’, people think one big giant block, but the Tesla Model S, for example, is made up of 7,104 lithium-ion cells. That offers a lot of flexibility in terms of where the batteries are located. You could put them low in the car to keep the center of gravity low.

The other issue with batteries is that they (like an engine) need to be cooled. Putting the batteries on the bottom of the car offer the opportunity for air cooling, but overheating remains an issue (just as it is with ICE cars.)

All in all, there are some interesting opportunities to address some of the major issues stock car racing has with aerodynamics because you’re changing the engine/aero balance. EVs won’t have any problem going fast. It’ll just be a different kind of fast.

Noise

Here’s the big negative for many of us. We like feeling our bones rattle when the engines fire up. We associate noise with speed. I was just reading a story about how people perceive quieter vacuum cleaners to be less efficient than noisier models. Loud=Fast.

Sitting at the racetrack in relative quiet would be really odd. There’s always the possibility of putting something to simulate the noise on the cars, but that’s a little hokey. On the other hand, I remember sitting in the infield at Texas Motor Speedway when Michael McDowell crashed during single-car qualifying. You often don’t hear crashes much because of the engine noise. When the engine is off, the crashes become much louder.

Safety

This is where some real work needs to be done. NASCAR would have to educate teams and drivers about all-new kinds of hazards. The design of the chassis would have to be changed to protect the battery packs and the driver. Electrical hazards are the obvious safety hazard, but you have to consider everything from the electrical conductivity of different car parts to driver extraction to crash testing with a car having a different weight distribution.

Rules

NASCAR would have to develop totally new inspection procedures, but they’ve been dealing with increasing levels of technology in the last five years and they seem to be coming up with solutions that work. But the time EVs are viable, they’ll have it figured out.

Objections

So here’s a few things people say when talk turns to EVs or really, any type of technology in NASCAR.

Technology Has Ruined the Sport

I just heard someone on SiriusXM NASCAR radio say this: Get the engineers out of the sport. Note, please, that those same engineers have also saved countless drivers from serious injury and death. That innovation didn’t just come from NASCAR, it came from the experience and input of team engineers as well.

I get the argument. I drive a stick Mustang. I think it’s a shame that high schools don’t require everyone to take a shop class and an automotive class because everyone ought to know something about how things are made and how they’re fixed. But the reality is that the world has changed. Those of us who would rather spend an hour opening up a coffee pot to try to fix it rather than hop Amazon and buy a new one are regarded by most people as sweetly anachronistic (at best) or dinosaurs. If NASCAR is really about the cars we drive today, then they can’t turn their backs on today’s technology. NASCAR doesn’t have to pioneer technology, but they can’t afford to ignore it.

The Cars are Too Easy to Drive/Takes It Out of the Drivers’ Hands

One of the biggest complaints is that high-tech cars are ‘too easy to drive’. This can be true. If you’ve got every bit of information going back to a team of twenty engineers in front of a console that looks like NASA mission control and they tell the driver to change his wedge from 4.0 to 4.1, then yes, you’ve effectively removed the driver.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

NASCAR is really good at making rules. Electric cars don’t mean you must have real-time telemetry or in-car adjustments.

I’ve interviewed a number of drivers who have driven both ICE, hybrid and all-electric race cars and I guarantee you there is an art to driving an electric race car because the torque profile is so different. It’s a bigger change than switching from bias-ply to radial tires. Some drivers will adapt. Others will be mystified. You can go high-tech and still leave a lot in the hands of the driver.

Don’t Tell Me What to Do

A lot of NASCAR fans got really angry at Nye’s suggestion. Some of that was Nye coming in, knowing nothing of the sport, and telling people what to do. I wonder how the idea would go over if Dale Earnhardt Jr. got behind it. Then again, fans got up in arms when NASCAR suggested they might quiet the cars down.

We don’t like change and we especially don’t like change that is imposed on us. There’s carrots and there’s sticks to get people to do what you want them to do. Legislation and regulation are sticks. Americans don’t like being told what to do. Manufacturers coming out with sexy, affordable hybrid and electric vehicles that save us money and perform better than ICEs is the way to get people to change their minds.

Conclusion

Electric Vehicle stock car racing isn’t going to happen in the next five or ten years, but as the country (and the world) moves to electric and hybrid vehicles, NASCAR has to decide whether they want to remain an anachronistic series that operates in honor of the past or a series that moves into the future. NASCAR exists to make money: their decision (and it could be to pursue both tracks) will ultimately depend on what the fans want.

Related

The Proposal to Muffle NASCAR Race Cars

NASCAR and Electric Cars: A Response to Bill Nye

What Needs to Happen Before Electric Cars Take Over the World (added 1/1/18)

Forget the Hype, Internal Combustion Engines are Here to Stay (added 1/1/18)

Electric GT Championship

Formula E

A Blood Test for Concussions is on the Horizon

Why We Need Better Tests for Concussions

Ken Willis wrote a wonderful series of articles in the Daytona Beach News-Journal entitled NASCAR and Concussions: An Old Problem, a New Concern. He starts with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but touches on the long history of drivers now suffering the effects of hard hits: Jerry Nadeau, Bobby Allison, and Fred Lorenzen. He also interviews drivers with more recent experience with concussions like Geoff Bodine, Randy LaJoie and Florida racer David Rogers.

Willis mentions that Earnhardt, Jr. recently pledged his brain to science — the only current driver to do so, although Fred Lorenzen also has. Lorenzen is 82 and suffers from dementia and suspected Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). If evidence of CTE is found, he would be the first NASCAR driver with documented CTE.

CTE diagnosis can’t be made until a person has died because the criteria for what constitutes CTE requires examining the inside of the brain. The figure below shows the brain of former University of Texas defensive tackle Greg Ploetz, who passed at age 66 and was found to have stage IV CTE. (There are four stages, the highest number being the most serious.)

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (July 25, 2017) reported the status of the brains of 202 men who had played football at professional, semi-professional, college or high-school levels. They found:

  • Out of all 202 men, 177 showed evidence of CTE
  • Out of 111 NFL players
    • 110 (99%) of them had CTE
    • 79 (71%) had severe CTE

(Some, including the NFL have questioned this study. I’ll explain more about that below.)

They correlated CTE to symptoms like memory loss, attention and language deficit, impulsivity, depression, apathy and anxiety in many of the cases.

But not everyone who has those symptoms has CTE. You can’t diagnose the disease from the symptoms.

What is CTE?

The brown areas on the brain with CTE are tangles of the Tau protein. This protein collects around blood vessels and in the deep creases of the brain. Tau proteins normally help hold our brain cells (aka neurons) together.

The most fragile part of a neuron is the skinniest part: the axon. The axon diameter is about a hundred times smaller than the diameter of a human hair (i.e. an axon is about 1 micrometer is diameter). A hard hit to the head, especially a rotation, damages these structures. The axons are the wiring in your brain, so a damaged axon doesn’t relay signals properly.

Damaged axons release tau proteins, which form clumps and tangles (and yes, those are the technical terms) that mess up the brain’s ability to send and receive messages.

The diagram at right comes from Alzheimer’s News Today. The same tau tangles responsible for CTE show up in Alzheimer’s, too.

Being able to see the disease only at it’s endpoint means we can’t answer a number of very important questions like:

  • How do the clumps and tangles form?
  • How fast does the disease develop?
  • What are the differences between Alzheimer’s and CTE?
  • Do treatments work?
  • Why do some people who have had repeated concussions never develop CTE? (Willis cites Buddy Baker as an example.)

There are an estimated 3.8 million sports-related concussions annually in the U.S. In addition to sports-related injuries, concussions are major issues for the military and for victims of domestic abuse. Anywhere between 3.2 to 5.3 million people live with the serious, long-term consequences of traumatic brain injury.

You need to know if you’ve have a concussion so it can be treated. It’s especially important to know because having a second concussion while you’re still recovering from a first concussion exacerbates brain damage. We need a fast way to tell when you’ve had a concussion, how serious a concussion it was, and to monitor your recovery from concussion.

Current State of the Art:PET

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) can’t see tau tangles directly, but it can see chemicals that bind to the Tau protein. You can see a significant different in the PET scans from control brains and those of two NFL players. Yellow and red signal high concentration of tau proteins.

Advantages

  • PET scans can be done on living people.
  • PET scans work at a molecular level. CT (Computerized Tomography) is essentially a highly detailed 3D x-ray. It can screen for bigger issues, like internal bleeding, but it isn’t capable of finding Tau tangles.

Disadvantages

  • You need a molecule that binds to tau proteins, but doesn’t bind to other things. It has to bind efficiently enough to detect small quantities of the protein.
  • PET requires injecting a very small dose of a radioactive chemical into the body. PET is usually used to diagnose people who have had heart attacks, or are fighting cancer. It’s not a technique to track disease in a person over twenty or thirty years.
  • PET scanners (and people who know how to use them and interpret the results) are not ubiquitous. It’s estimated there are only about 400 PET scanners worldwide.
  • The radioactive tracer chemical is expensive and difficult to produce and transport because it become non-radioactive fairly quickly.
  • PET scans are very expensive.

In short, this technique isn’t useful for a chronic diseases like CTE. Its expense and risk preclude many people from using it.

The Future: Biomarkers

A blood work up usually included Total Serum Protein. This test detects proteins like albumin, which carries medicine and hormones throughout your body and helps with healing, and globulin, which are a group of proteins that are made by you liver and immune system to help fight infection and transport nutrients.

Biomarkers

A biomarker is an objective indication of a medical state. Pulse, blood pressure, albumin level, globulin level are all biomarkers. Some biomarkers are very specific. (The HER-2 marker for breast cancer, for example). Others can indicate more than one possible issue and need the presence of other biomarkers for a definitive diagnosis.

Biomarkers are important because they are not self-reported symptoms. As I’ve written about before, concussion victims can hide symptoms if they don’t want to be parked.

A number of biomarker molecules have been identified for concussions, including proteins and enzymes. Biomarkers are found in three types of fluids:

  • Saliva, Urine & Tears
  • Blood
  • Cerebrospinal fluid

I’ve listed these in the order of easiest to get to hardest to get, but I’ll consider them in order of least-likely-to-be-useful to most-likely-to-be-useful.

Saliva, Urine and Tears

Sounds like the name of a heavy metal band, doesn’t it?

These fluids rid the body of things it doesn’t want. Some proteins produced by concussions may be discarded through one of these fluids. They’re easy to get. The problem is that the concentration of concussion biomarkers is very small and research thus far doesn’t suggest there’s a correlation between how much is detected and how much is actually present in the brain.

Cerebrospinal Fluid

Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) is a colorless, clear fluid in the brain and spinal cord. Your body has about 150 milliliters of CSF. A medical professional extracts it by putting a very long needle into the lower spine, under local anesthetic. (You can also take the fluid directly from the brain, but this requires drilling a hole into the skull.)

You have a much higher chance of finding biomarkers in CSF because they are much more concentrated. On the negative side, a professional must collect the fluid. Although tests of the CSF are useful for research and learning about concussion, they’re not likely to become routine tests for concussions.

Blood

One of your body’s greatest defenses makes detecting biomarkers in the blood a great challenge.

The Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB). Biomarkers have a hard time getting from the CSF into the blood. The blood-brain barrier is a semi-porous membrane that keeps circulating blood away from the CSF. The BBB is our brain’s safety fence, letting oxygen, glucose and amino acids in and out, but keeping larger molecules (like bacteria and neurotoxins and proteins) from passing through. You may have Tau proteins in your brain, but they may not be able to get into the bloodsteam in detectable amounts until there has already been significant damage.

Advantages

  • Blood is easy to get; it’s relatively painless and doesn’t require a lot of skill.
  • There many handheld blood-analysis devices on the market (or soon to come onto the market). These are similar to the glucose testing devices, but can be adapted for other types of analyses. This allows the possibility for a future in which the infield care center had every driver who had a hard hit stick their finger in a device and get an instant reading of whether they need followup testing for concussion.
  • There are also much more sensitive tests available in laboratories using standard blood-analysis techniques

Disadvantages

  • The brain has about 150 milliliters of cerebrospinal fluid. Only a fraction of the proteins released into the cerebrospinal fluid after a concussion get into the bloodstream. Those that do rapidly diffuse throughout the 4 Liters of blood in your body. Imagine putting a grain of sand in a quart of water compared to putting the same grain of sand in 666 gallons of water.
  • The Blood-Brain Barrier
  • Measuring the biomarkers is a challenge
    • Assays must be able to measure not only small amounts of the biomarker, but small changes in small amounts
    • You have to be sure you’re measuring the biomarker and not other molecules that look similar to the biomarker.
    • The measurement must be done quickly.

Recent advance, however, suggest that we are on the verge of overcoming these difficulties. There are a number of cases in which the concussion can temporarily disrupt the BBB. That’s not necessarily good, but it may allow biomarker molecules to escape into the blood, which would allow them to be detected.

 i-STAT

Abbott Labs’ i-STAT is a handheld real-time blood analyzer. Hospitals already use i-STAT for routine blood work. Abbott has partnered with the Department of Defense, who have a decade of research into biomarkers they think would be useful to treating their soldiers. In May, DoD gave Abbott a 11.2 million dollar contract to develop a portable blood analysis device that would detect mild brain injury. Over 360,000 service members have suffered traumatic brain injury since 2000.

They hope to deploy a device that can test for one or both of two biomarkers in 15 minutes or less in the next two years.

Track-TBI

While the i-STAT people have zeroed in on two particular biomarkers, the TRACK-TBI team is trying to figure out which biomarkers might be the most accurate for detecting and monitoring concussions by looking at over 3,000 patients in 18 different cities. It’s one of the largest studies of concussion biomarkers. This gets to the question of not just ‘can we measure it’, but ‘what do the numbers we measure really mean for the patient?’

Astrocytes

Astrocytes are star-shaped glial cells that help sustain and repair the central nervous system. Just last October, a UCLA research group found that astrocytes release four biomarkers into the cerebrospinal fluid when they rupture.

Astrocytes connect to capillaries and blood vessels, so it’s possible the biomarkers might make it out into the blood stream due to those ruptures. (Researchers at Boston University are taking advantage of a similar mechanism, using a biomarker protein called CLL11 they think sneaks into the blood stream when tiny blood vessels that carry oxygen into the brain rupture.)

The UCLA group could detect three of the four biomarkers as soon as one hour after injury. They found the biomarkers even when a CT scan showed no macroscopic damage.

BUT…

You won’t be seeing any of these methods used in NASCAR next year. Why?

Hype. I found five or six reports, all on different research, all with titles like “For the first time, researchers may be able to diagnose concussions with a simple blood test.” In an attempt to make the results easy to understand and click-worthy, results are often inflated in the transition from the research paper to the newspaper.

Lab vs. Racetrack. There’s a big difference between a Ph.D. biochemist measuring something in the lab and being able to translate that into the hands of the assistant football coach at Joe Schlobotik High School (or the nurse at the infield care center).

Two years ago, everyone developing devices said they expected they would be available by the end of 2017. The same people are now saying it’ll be another two years. This is how science works, folks. You solve one problem only to find more.

Finding it vs. Knowing What It Means. It’s one thing to measure a biomarker. It’s another thing to understand how to use it. Researchers need long-term (meaning years or decades) clinical trials involving large numbers of people to correlate the amount of biomarker measured to the severity of the injury.

Red Tape/ The FDA must approve any device that claims to make a medical diagnosis. The company will have to prove that an average user can get meaningful, correct results. The first blood tests for concussion will likely be done in a laboratory and not on-site. That slows down the process, but is better than current technology. The same 2015 stories that predicted the hand-held device would be on the market about now also said that this test could be approved within 6 months. We’re still waiting.

What are the Chances of Getting CTE?

We don’t know.

I mentioned that the NFL has taken issue with some of the CTE research. One of the problems researchers acknowledge is that the people most likely to donate their brains (or undergo PET or other tests you can do while alive…) are the ones who believe they’ve had concussion-related damage. It looks really bad when 110 out of 111 brains showed CTE, but it doesn’t mean that 99% of all football players are going to have CTE. The position you play also makes a difference, as do individual variations in your biochemistry. If they’d included brains from people who had no sign of mental degradation, it may have been 110 out of 300. That’s not to say it’s not a problem. It’s saying we don’t know how much of a problem it is.

Researchers need to examine “normal” brains, not just brains from people we’re already pretty sure are affected. We currently have no way to even estimate the chances of getting CTE from a particular sport. We know concussions are worse when they happen to developing brains, and they’re worse if you have a lot of them. But we don’t know how much worse, or if some people are more likely to be affected than others. Youth football participating is going down: some NFL players have walked away. There’s no way to give people informed consent about what they are getting into.

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