Don Ryan, Associated Press
STANFORD, Calif. — The moment Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu collided with a defensive back at Oregon State last week, information about the severity of his head injury started to emerge on the sideline.
Not from a trainer or doctor, but rather from a sensor in his mouthpiece relaying data through a wireless transmitter for instant analysis. The detailed diagnosis went beyond a simple screening, giving insight on an injury that will sideline the starting receiver when No. 3 Stanford faces No. 6 Oregon on Saturday night.
In an unprecedented field research study, about two dozen Stanford players are wearing mouthpieces equipped with tiny sensors to measure the number and force of head impacts during games and practices. The sensors provide instant information to the sideline, where team trainers and doctors monitor hits as they happen.
"If you go back and look at the four-year career of a collegiate football player, how many hits are they actually receiving? That's what we want to find out," said Dr. Dan Garza, Stanford's team physician and assistant professor of orthopedic surgery. "And, secondly, is there a threshold for concussions? Or is there at least a zone where we say this is highly likely going to be a concussion? Maybe we can alert players to that ahead of time."
Even with the football team gaining unprecedented notoriety, real-world issues at Stanford come first.
The mouthpieces are slightly thicker than the normal ones, and they offer the same protection. The difference is the devices contain accelerometers and gyrometers that measure the linear and rotational force of head impacts, and a radio inside transmits the data to sideline computers.
Stanford researchers dropped a crash-test dummy some 4,000 times to ensure the sensors corresponded to what the brain is experiencing from the mouth. The study is being funded by the Stanford Department of Orthopedic Surgery with support from the athletic program.
Garza presented 24 mouthpieces to the team and explained how they functioned before the season. Players were not asked to participate — they could decide on their own.
The response has been so overwhelming that there are more players asking for the devices than ones wearing them.
Players have been partners in the study, providing feedback on the devices and how to improve technology. The responses so far have differed.
Stanford quarterback and Heisman Trophy favorite Andrew Luck doesn't wear one because the enlarged mouthpiece is bothersome and causes him problems when he's calling out cadences. Others prefer it because it keeps their mouths open and helps them breathe easier.
"At first, I just wanted to wear it because it lights up and glows in your mouth," said safety Michael Thomas, one of the players to volunteer for the research. "I was like, 'Wow, that looks cool.' But it's definitely contributing to something great."
Others hardly notice a difference.
"I don't really think about it while I'm playing," wide receiver Ty Montgomery said. "At the end of the day when the trainers are reminding me what it does, it kind of feels good that I'm part of something like that. It just reminds me how special this place is."
Concussions have become a major issue in sports in recent years.
The NFL, NHL and college football, among others, have implemented stricter rules on hits to the head and player safety. While dizziness or memory loss is often associated with concussions, symptoms are not always easy to detect.
Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor of sports science at North Carolina and a concussion expert, has done research on helmets with built-in accelerometers. The mouthpiece sensors involve similar principles, and could provide more insight, with the hope to spread the devices to other sports where players don't wear helmets.
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