Wise up on brain protection.

In a UK exclusive, The Ski Club's Digital Editor, Joe Troman, was invited to The MIPS labs in Sweden by Bollé to learn more about the most harmful types of brain trauma and the pioneering steps the company is taking to reduce brain damage during an impact. The visit also marked the launch of Bolle's new Instinct MIPS snow helmet, which was tested during our visit.

“They thought I was mad” chuckled enigmatic neurosurgeon Hans Van Hols, sitting in MIPS’ laboratory just outside Stockholm, nestled between strange drop towers and space-age pneumatic rams, I almost agreed.

In cases of serious brain swelling caused by trauma, brain surgery can elevate patient survival rates from almost zero to 80%, but this preservation of life is borrowed from elsewhere. Brain swelling will more often than not leave some residual damage to the function of the brain. Where patients survive the operation, the damaged nerves from a serious trauma can render everyday tasks a challenge with many never returning to full functionality. 

Joe Troman

After becoming increasingly frustrated at the number of patients passing through his theatre, Hans approached his engineering counterpart at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm in 1996. The goal was to explore whether the clinical surgeon and engineer could work together to reduce the number of head trauma patients requiring brain surgery by exploring primary preventative methods – a seemingly logical step that prompted his colleagues to question his resolve.

MIPS, or Multidirectional Impact Protection System, is the result, a low friction layer fitted to the inside of helmets that helps to minimise the rotational strain on the brain during a fall. The ingenious system sits close to the scalp, inside the hard outer shell of a helmet and reduces the amount of rotational energy exerted onto the brain by allowing 10-15mm of relative motion between the head and the helmet, deflecting the energy exerted to the side of the head. 

Why has this serious issue not been addressed before? 

It has been known since the 1940s that rotational forces and impacts are more harmful to the brain that linear ones, however, helmet manufacturers have only ever previously protected against linear impacts, in line with EU regulations, specifically EN 1077:2007. Certified ski and cycle helmets are not legally required to perform under circumstances outside legislation, resulting in the consumer believing all helmets offer equal protection, and where there is no consumer demand, brands do not react. Helmet companies, as a result, prioritised fit, ventilation, aerodynamics and aesthetics over enhanced protection.

But think about it, the last time you had a fall on snow, did your head strike the ground at exactly 90 degrees? No? We thought not. The chances are that a snowsports fall will result in an angled collision with terra-firma. This has been confirmed by countless studies examining falls and the angle at which a head strikes the ground. The Fédération Internationale de Ski found that on average, Downhill and Super G athletes' heads struck the snow at 21 degrees during a fall, however, their helmets are only tested for linear forces that act at 90 degrees to the head, the same test that off the shelf consumer helmets undergo. To many, including the team at MIPS, this approach to testing seems archaic.

After two decades of hard work to raise awareness, it would seem MIPS is making significant steps not only to protect but to educate. Consumer awareness about the hazards of different types of impacts is increasing, and manufacturers are reacting. The patented MIPS system is now present in over 5.4million helmets produced by over 60 of the world’s most well-respected sports equipment brands, like Bollé and their new Instinct snow helmet which was tested during my visit. The little yellow sticker on the back of a MIPS helmet is getting brighter and brighter for discerning shoppers.


MIPS is not only changing the protection game, but also the legislation game

At the heart of the MIPS headquarters is the testing lab. The area sticks to the company’s ethos of marrying the medical and mechanical is plain to see. After developing different testing rigs to replicate the different types of real world of impacts, MIPS are striving to make their new standard of testing industry standard. 

It has been known for over 70 years that rotational forces exerted on the brain cause higher levels of trauma than linear impacts. But the extent of this damage was not fully appreciated by the MIPS team until they constructed detailed finite element models of the human brain. 

MIPS have integrated this model into a test rig where rotational impacts are measured by a model head packed with sensors and gyros to illustrate the difference that a MIPS helmet can make. This proved a huge undertaking as the load of an impact of this kind can reach 750kg and only acts over a 5-10 millisecond period, 20 times faster than the blink of an eye!

More and more research papers are highlighting the dangers of brain traumas are being released with one recently finding an 80% link between repeated head trauma and dementia. It’s hardly surprising that with such agreement amongst experts consumers are paying attention, this author included.

After the visit, this author won't consider buying a helmet without a little yellow MIPS sticker, it’s a no-brainer.

Joe was a guest of Bollé on his visit to Stockholm, Sweden. Launched this winter, the Instinct MIPS also features adjustable ventilation and the BOA fit system for precise size adjustment.