Helmet sensors have been used for years to try to gauge the nuances and consequences of head injuries in contact sports like football, but now a team at Stanford University is hoping mouth guards loaded with sensors can gather head injury data on a much larger scale, helping researchers determine exactly what the human brain’s threshold is for those jarring, slot-receiver-coming-across-the-middle impacts.

Helmets imbued with all kinds of inertial sensors and gyros have been used with regularity over the past several football seasons to record impact forces and try to quantify what makes hits dangerous or less-dangerous, or whether or not there is a certain number of hits the human brain can sustain before lasting damage sets in. But those sensor helmets are expensive and have yet to be deployed extensively.

The Stanford team, with the help of Seattle-based X2 Impact, thinks that mouth guards provide a far less expensive alternative that could provide researchers with the large samples of data needed to perform some solid brain injury science. Some researchers think the mouth guards enjoy other benefits as well, like shifting less during a big impact and more closely monitoring forces inside the head. They do so via six sensors embedded in the mouth guards themselves that take readings on linear and rotational forces and beam those to a computer on the sidelines, where an algorithm estimates the way the brain experienced the blow.

Given the additional scrutiny being heaped upon professional and collegiate sports medical staffs and their practices regarding concussion–particularly in the National Football League, where an unsettling rash of mental health issues has emerged in former players, including some that doctors believe have led to suicides–the mouth guards could go a long way into bringing some clarity into a realm of cranial science that as yet remains murky. The Stanford team has already employed the mouth guards on the collegiate football field, and plans to add women’s lacrosse and hockey to its sample data soon.

Technology Review