New Device Can Monitor Concussions in Athletes

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Concussions are the most common type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBIs are responsible for around 30% of all injury-related deaths in the United States each year. Athletes are especially prone to suffering concussions during impacts from tackles and collisions and are targets for speeding balls. The ability to accurately track the progression of a concussion during recovery could improve athlete health and safety and work toward preventing head injuries before they occur. Thanks to a new high-tech mouth guard, scientists may have finally cracked the code on how to gather accurate, objective data about sports impacts.

The Pitfalls of Existing Concussion-Monitoring Devices

The need for a new type of device to track athlete concussions has been prevalent for years – so much so that the National Football League (NFL) pledged $100 million toward concussion research and new safety equipment for athletes in 2016. Existing research typically used head-mounted impact monitoring systems, such as helmets. Helmet-mounted sensors, however, do not collect the most accurate data, because the helmets don’t move or react the same way the human head does.

The helmet moves and bounces around upon impact, unlike the skull. Therefore, back in 2015, the NFL indefinitely stopped using concussion-monitoring systems. Today, a company called Prevent Biometrics might have the solution – a concussion-monitoring mouth guard. Unlike helmets, mouth guards couple with the teeth which are affixed to the skull. During impact tests, the mouth guard sensor doesn’t move around or skew data. The new mouth guard device could have the potential to monitor concussions in athletes with much greater accuracy, opening the door to a new era of TBI measurement and understanding

How Does the Prevent Biometrics Mouth Guard Work?

Dr. Adam Bartsch, chief science officer at Prevent Biometrics, says he heard about the idea of attaching concussion-monitoring sensors to a mouth guard instead of a helmet back in 2003. Dr. John Melvin asked a question about mounting sensors in a mouthpiece for better coupling at a talk from a doctor from Virginia Tech, when Bartsch was a graduate student at Ohio State University. In 2008, Bartsch spoke with the director of the Head, Neck, and Spine Research Lab at the Cleveland Clinic (Dr. Vincent Miele) about the idea of mounting the sensors in a mouth guard.

Since then, Bartsch, Miele, and Dr. Edward Benzel (chairman of the Cleveland Clinic’s neurosurgery department) have been working to develop a more accurate concussion monitoring system for boxers. During tests of prototypes and early models, they found that the mouth guard could accurately gauge head impacts within 5% of the impact’s true value. This is significantly more accurate than other monitors the NFL has tested and used.

The Prevent Biometrics mouth guard is highly technological, with components that must be durable, flexible, and able to withstand the process of fitting a mouth guard to a specific athlete (which includes boiling). It includes a flexible circuit board, four accelerometers, a light and proximity sensor, three LED alert lights, Bluetooth, and a wireless charging element. The guard’s components can collect impact data such as the force, direction, and number of impacts. It then uses a patented algorithm to monitor the impact and sends the information to an app via Bluetooth.

The Future of Athlete Concussion monitoring

It took more than three years of work to bring the concussion-monitoring mouth guard to fruition. The developers plan on debuting it as a commercial product to youth and high school sports organizations later this year. The mouthpiece can’t prevent or diagnose concussions, but it can give coaches a warning when to look for signs of head injury. The NFL will be evaluating a variety of mouth guard concussion sensors this year, with the Prevent Biometrics version one of the leading competitors.