Preventing concussions with a high-tech mouthguard

In the U.S., February 11 was a big day.

Many hot wings and hot dogs were eaten, Taylor Swift was spotted on television, and the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers in the 2024 Super Bowl

To our non-U.S. readers, don’t worry. MedTech Pulse will not be shifting gears to cover American football. 

We bring up football today because of what it often means for the medical community. Football is notoriously associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and concussions.

Medtech is hoping to do something about that.
Prevent Biometrics’ new device designed for athletes and soldiers measures real-time head impacts and provides alerts to help prevent serious injury. In essence, it’s a high-tech upgrade to the tool many athletes rely on: the mouthguard.

How we came to fear concussions

Over the past few years, athletics around the world have been rocked by a greater understanding of head injury. This is especially true when it comes to contact sports like American football, boxing, and rugby. 

The biggest threat to these athletes’ brains? CTE—or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

While individual head traumas may not be devastating, the damage can add up.

Chart: MedTech Pulse
Chart: MedTech Pulse

CTE develops as a result of repeated TBIs. It involves the buildup of tangled tau proteins in the brain, leading to brain damage reminiscent of that seen in Alzheimer’s disease and, eventually, even death.

“Even 10 years ago, if someone took a big hit they were told to get up and play or keep going,” said Mike Shogren, CEO of Prevent Biometrics. “Now reducing major head impacts and understanding concussion risk is a major focus in sports and the military.”

Over the past decade, CTE has become a specter haunting American football. Players have retired early due to fears of developing the condition. There have been calls to keep younger children from playing tackle football due to fears of CTE. Long-time sports fans have turned away from the sport, citing the NFL’s obfuscation of the dangers of CTE.

The science behind head impacts has also been a long time coming.

“Decades ago, scientists had to use Rube Goldberg contraptions to study head impact,” said Adam Bartsch, Prevent Biometrics’ chief science officer. “Sometimes these were made from a dental mold with a rigid plate and sensors bigger than dice, with a 10-meter-long cable connecting it to a computer. The wearer would drool and the data wasn’t perfect, but it was the best they had.”

Now, it seems data on the global and local impacts of head impacts and brain injury in sports and beyond has hit a tipping point. And innovators are stepping in to help, asking: If we won’t keep athletes from the game, how can we make them safer?

What can a smart mouthguard do for brain health?

One of the biggest barriers to preventive brain health for athletes and soldiers is the unknown. Until now, preventing serious head injury has been akin to a game of Russian Roulette for these populations. It hasn’t been clear why some impacts result in injury while others don’t.

Precise, personalized data collection and real-time analysis could be what turns the tide. 

The Impact Monitoring Mouthguard (IMM) was first conceived at the Cleveland Clinic. It’s a two-in-one tool—both a functional mouthguard and a state-of-the-art data collection and analysis system. From its home in the user’s mouth, it calculates a bevy of factors, including the force, location, direction, and number of impacts.

In sports, the IMM is helping fight the “get over it” status quo when it comes to potentially dangerous head impacts. Prevent is collaborating with World Rugby on a large-scale project to help monitor players and triage them for assessment off the field.

For military applications, Prevent has focused on parachute landing falls (PLFs). This is a landing technique used by the U.S. Army in its paratrooper training program. Errors in the technique can lead to head injury—and the IMM uncovered a higher frequency of dangerous impacts than previously assumed. 

“We found a significant head impact in about 5% of jumps,” said Bartsch. “That’s about 30 times as much as the published incidence of concussion in paratroopers.” 

In the future, Prevent plans to use their data and develop further products to more minutely track and study the cumulative effects of smaller impacts—not just major impacts.

We’re excited about the power of these tools to help us better understand brain injury—and to empower athletes and other professionals to keep doing what they love, with a little more protection and health information on their side.

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