Singletrack Issue 121: MIPS: You’re Twisting My Melon Man

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MIPS invited us to Sweden to explain its in-helmet safety system in words that non-neuroscientists can understand. Luckily we have our own actual PhD neuroscientist, so we sent Barney to translate.

Words & Photography Dr Barney Marsh

If you ride a mountain bike (and it’s a fair bet that the majority of people reading this article do) then it’s more than likely that you wear a helmet. If you don’t, why not? You mentalist.

After all, helmets are A Good Thing. They provide a first point of defence between your noggin and the hard pointy things which want to interfere with its smooth function and undoubtedly suave and elegant looks. In the dim and distant past, perhaps, such safety-conscious thinking came at the expense of – uh – looks. I well remember my first helmet, which resembled nothing more or less than a giant mushroom smirshed around my head and ears, but these days, whether it’s a result of cultural habituation, the progress of technology, cunning marketing, or all three, helmets can look pretty durned cool. In fact, if I see a rider without a helmet they look a little odd. Underdressed, frankly. There’s an unspoken assumption that the bare-bonced rider isn’t all that serious – and certainly won’t be trying any of the death-defying features that we steely-eyed adventurers will shortly be schralping, no sir!

But take a look inside that helmet of yours. Technologically, it’s a fair bet that it’s essentially unchanged inside for the past 30-odd years – maybe more. Polystyrene. A bit of foam to make it a bit more comfy. And that’s about it.

But some of you might note a yellow layer of plastic inside. You may well be aware that it’s called the MIPS layer (which stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System, acronym fans) and you also may be aware that your lid cost a little more than another (possibly identical) one without that yellow bit. You may also be under the impression that it makes your helmet a little safer, somehow. This is clearly a good thing. But how, exactly does it do this? Where did the idea come from? And is it all that important anyway? Let’s go to Sweden – home of the safety conscious – to find out!

Taking Stock(holm)

Sweden is known for many things in the mind of the typical Brit: IKEA. Meatballs. Skiing. Telemark (this is actually in Norway, but we’re an uneducated lot). A weird fondness for fermented herring. And, of course, Volvo (and latterly, Saab). These last two were (and are still, in Volvo’s case) bastions of redoubtable reliability and safety. It has been said that this last is imprinted in the national psyche. Cut open a Swede, and ‘safety’ is written through his body like words in a particularly meaty stick of Blackpool rock. So it’s reassuring that the company MIPS AB, ever keen to increase helmet safety, was founded here.

But before we get into all that, I think we need to do some explaining. What’s the deal with MIPS anyway? Is it important? Or (as mentioned on a recent thread), is it all marketing BS?

Let’s unpack it. Cynics may think that MIPS and the technology it offers is just a marketing gimmick, and a way of offering a perhaps slim performance enhancement for an often substantial extra cost. MIPS, on the other hand, claims that its helmet augmentations offer improvements that are nothing short of urgently necessary – and the briefest look at the data certainly seems to bear this out.

A head of the game.

You see, at the moment, the standard way of testing helmets is by using the decades-old technique of dropping them vertically onto a flat surface – so most helmets have heretofore been designed with passing this test this in mind. But this isn’t ideal. For starters, finding yourself coming off your bike and landing from a vertical position onto a flat surface is somewhat unlikely (maybe unless cliffs are involved, but let’s not think about that), but also, the sort of off-centre, moving impact that a rider is likely to sustain when their face is ‘entertaining’ the trail for a brief instant is one far more likely to do plenty of nasty things to the squishy stuff inside your head.

Let’s begin by looking at the brain. It doesn’t look all that much like the grey things you might have seen pickled in formalin in the Natural History Museum, and it doesn’t have the same texture. It’s vaguely pink, and it’s rather squishy. Think of a brain-shaped Angel Delight. Yum. Now, it can’t support itself under its own weight – if you took yours out and plonked it on the table, it’d start to sag and ooze across the surface. So in your head, it floats in a bath of nutrients and other good stuff called the cerebrospinal fluid. The fact that it’s floating (and lightly anchored in place with the meninges and the arachnoid layer) means that there is a layer of protection that tries to dissipate any forces applied to it.

Now that’s not to say that if you found yourself under the unusually vertical influence of a substantial wodge of the Peak District, say, you’d be fine at all (you’d be a mess), but there is evidence that it’s not as bad as more common impacts.

Twistin’ that melon, man.

You see, most cycling injuries aren’t like that. The impact forces aren’t linear; they’re tangential, glancing blows, they’re off-centre, and they cause the head to rotate very sharply in a very short space of time (10 milliseconds or so). And your brain is fairly heavy. Unless you’ve been massively overdoing the paint thinners, your brain weighs around 1,400g. Within that squishy mass are all sorts of substructures, each one with a slightly different density to its neighbours, and anchored together with them in a delicate filigree of neurons and connective cells, and what have you. A substantial torsional force, which causes the brain to rotate sharply, will start to tear things using shear forces, so the consequences of that same lump of the Peak District applied anywhere other than centrally will be much worse. Words like ‘concussion’ (which is still a mystery, but thought more likely as a result of shear forces), ‘subdural hæmatoma’ and ‘diffuse axonal injury’ may be mentioned. There will be much sucking of teeth. People may wince. It won’t be good.

The idea behind MIPS, then, is to introduce technology into helmet manufacture that actually helps protect the brain from more than just linear impacts. The fact that normal, safety-certified helmets don’t do nearly enough to counter rotational force is troubling, and it speaks volumes that helmet manufacturers are scrabbling to introduce MIPS or other rotational-force protection into their products.

Stock-holm on the range.

The MIPS HQ is bright, airy, and was once the home of a Swedish design house of some repute, judging by the fancy chandeliers that are dotted all over the place. In a meeting room here, I was introduced to Hans von Holst and Peter Halldin, two of MIPS’s founders. Hans is a professor and neurosurgeon at Karolinska University Hospital; it’s fair to say he knows his onions when it comes to traumatic brain injury. He spoke at length about the reasoning behind setting up the company, his research and its eventual aims, which go far beyond merely protecting outdoors enthusiasts. One of the things that intrigued me (I sadly don’t have the space to go into detail about the many, many others – but sharks were involved) was that MIPS is involved with cellular and molecular research into brain trauma as well as protection; when asked why, Hans’s answer was eye-opening:

“A couple of weeks ago, Drs Nordström, who are researchers at Umeå University in the northern part of Sweden, looked at brain-injured patients and compared them to dementia patients. In short, they found that if you have a moderate head injury, there is a very high risk (up to 80%) that you’ll get dementia in the future. It’s the same if you have several mild head injuries. This is a very recent paper.”

So mild or moderate head injuries at the very least correlate strongly with dementia in later life. As someone who’s had a couple of concussions, this is extremely worrying. And if you couple this with the widespread understanding I explained above that it’s not linear, but torsional force (and thus rotational energy), that’s more likely to inflict substantial concussive brain injuries, then the need for systems like MIPS becomes abundantly clear. And Hans is very clear that we’ve not figured everything out just yet, either:

“When I started my education we only knew about five different types of cells in the brain tissue – and at the moment we’re up to at least 200 different types of cell. So we are only just starting to figure out what we’ll see in the future. MIPS doesn’t just look at the consequences of impact to the brain tissue with translational acceleration and so on.”

Experiences in ’Nam

MIPS was started in 1995, when Peter Halldin (now their Chief Technical Officer), then studying Finite Element (FE) modelling at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, met Hans with a view to making helmets safer. Peter’s interest in helmet safety came from a practical experience:

“When we met we started to conduct research on both the head and the neck looking at reducing the severity of injuries to the head and neck in crashes, After a while I took a three-month vacation and went to Vietnam. I bought an old Russian motorcycle, but didn’t really know how to panic brake; so when I crashed I was braking with my foot (on the rear wheel pedal) and not with the front wheel – but I survived! When I got back, I took my tests, and I wanted a safer helmet, so I started to talk to Hans about it and that’s when we came up with MIPS.”

Various iterations of the company followed, including a move from motorbike to equestrian helmets, and a decision to become what MIPS calls an ‘ingredient brand’ so they can reach as many manufacturers – and people – as possible. In doing so, they’ve gone from one full-time and one part-time person to 25 people in Sweden and a further 10 in China.

The technology essentially places a low-friction slip-plane within the helmet’s structure which is anchored to the rest of the helmet with stretchy tabs. It affords the helmet 10 to 15cm of rotation in the event of a crash, which can prevent some of those rotational forces being transferred to the soft tissue inside your head.

In fact, the MIPS system is actually an attempt to mimic what’s already going on around the surface of your brain with all that cushioning cerebrospinal fluid, so it aims to increase the rotational forces the whole system (brain, head, helmet) can accommodate before brain injury occurs. It’s pretty neat.

Research and destroy.

But it’s all very well being utterly terrified by the theory – it’s important to see stuff getting smashed to smithereens, too – and Daniel Lanner, Product Development Manager, was only too happy to oblige.

MIPS is home to a frightening array of high-tech ways to literally smash a head in; there’s a helmeted crash-head which is dropped onto a place which moves at the last second, creating that all important tangential impact; there’s a large angled sandpaper-covered surface onto which the hapless head is dropped which achieves something similar; there’s a hydraulic ram which fires directly into a poor stationary head (with an American Football helmet on) and which induces the most winces. I picked up a test-head; they are surprisingly heavy – you forget how much stuff there is in that noggin of yours that your neck muscles do such a good job of supporting.

Each of these large pieces of equipment is surrounded by high-speed cameras and other monitoring equipment, as well as the ones inside the head itself, which record precisely what’s going on, and where. The helmets are placed on the heads with startling precision – everything is measured; everything is exactly so for ultimate replicability, and experiments are repeated over and over again. If I didn’t feel sorry for the poor crash head before entering this room, I did after. All of this information is fed into number-crunching computers which spit out a huge variety of data including translational and rotational acceleration, rotational velocity and more.

MIPS hopes that testing paradigms like the ones it uses here will be in use by the standards agencies in the near future, to allow helmets to be tested for rotational forces which can have such an impact on brain injury and recovery.

Finite Element modelling is still a key part of MIPS’s research too, though. Svein Kleiven (another MIPS co-founder) at the division of Neuronic Engineering in KTH Royal Institute of Technology uses computer models of the head and the brain (including an impressively large number of brain structures), and he and his team are working on modelling the brain as far as the molecular level, and they can model brain injuries in the computer in startling detail. So it’s not all large thwacking machines.

A quick leg burner.

Former pro rider Chris Pietrzak is the Head of Innovation at MIPS, so he’s responsible for pushing forward with new concepts to yield the same goals as the existing MIPS systems, as well as refining the existing ones. He and Senior Project Manager Marcus Seyffarth very kindly took me riding around the local trails. As you’d perhaps expect, given that Stockholm is built across 14 islands, it’s fairly flat – but within the city limits there are plenty of rooty woodland trails, soft with pine needles and spiced with rocks to play on.

It stands to reason that the folks at MIPS will be lean outdoorsy types; both Chris and Marcus are somewhat handy, to say the least. So I was pathetically grateful every time I espied a photogenic spot to take a couple of photos. Unfortunately, though, this left me wide open to attack from the other more insectile denizens of lakeside woodland, and predictably I got bitten to hell. The trails are a load of fun, though. Fast, drifty, rooty and woodsy; I’m reliably informed that there’s more where they came from.

A MIPS in time saves…

But what happens next for the company? It has had some impressive validations by external independent companies – including a recent study by Virginia Tech in the USA of a wide variety of helmets (MIPS helmets came out on top), adoption by a vast number of manufacturers, and working towards a change in the way helmets are actually tested. Isn’t that enough? Well, no. The company is constantly trying new ideas and things which might make for a better helmet with more protection. The most recent iteration of this to reach the market is the MIPS Spherical, which actually has the low friction layer essentially running through the middle of the helmet like a ball and socket joint, making for better airflow and comfort, but importantly increasing the potential rotation of the inner shell against the outer compared to the yellow plastic insert we’re used to seeing in MIPS bike helmets.

In between scratches, I quizzed Chris on where he sees MIPS heading next (without giving too much away):

“We’re essentially running the gamut from generating completely new systems and components to achieve the same aim as well as improving the systems we already have.

“In the past, MIPS was one product. What’s happened in the past couple of years is that we’ve developed a few new ways and techniques to accomplish the same thing. And that means different types of helmets, and different types of use-case scenarios. For example, you’re not necessarily going to want the exact same system in a bike helmet as you might need in a snow helmet, as the requirements are different. So now we’re getting into more product specific stuff.

“I want to get to the point where MIPS is just there and you can’t even see it. The only way you’d know is because of the label. I want to get it like ABS in cars. Completely seamless and clean.”

It’s a noble aim. Sure, there are competitors who are aiming to develop other ways of tackling the same issues – but the people at MIPS don’t seem to mind. They’ve got plenty of ideas up their sleeves, they’ve got colossal scientific and technological expertise at their fingertips, and ultimately the goal is to increase helmet safety. The more people addressing the same issues the better.

Disclosure: Barney’s flight and accommodation were paid for by MIPS.

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