Can Tech Save Players' Brains?

  • By Ana Aceves
  • Posted 02.07.18
  • NOVA

Football is a full-contact sport, but can a high tech mouth guard help save players’ brains?

Running Time: 02:49


Can Tech Save Players' Brains?

Published February 6, 2018

Onscreen: Every year, millions of football players suffer concussions. Could a new technology make the game safer?

This mouth guard has built-in sensors.

Tim Chartier: The mouthpiece has a gyroscope that understands where you’re moving.

Onscreen: It tracks where the player’s head is in space. An accelerometer registers a hit as a sudden change in position.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif: Everything is measured in terms of acceleration or deceleration.

Onscreen: If the hit exceeds a set threshold, the device sends an alert via bluetooth to a coach or trainer on the sidelines.

Jeff Habecker: It told us exactly where that helmet was contacted. Whether it was in the front, the back, or the very top of the helmet. It also told us the intensity. Was it a low, medium, or moderate hit? Or a high velocity hit.

Onscreen: Team can then pull a player from the field for a medical evaluation. Thousands of high school and college athletes now use these devices.

Kendall Thomas: The data we received is every single practice and every single game for one team for the entire season. So, it’s like, 20,000 data points.

Onscreen: The data are revealing what kinds of hits are most dangerous.

Chartier: What we found in the data is that if a player becomes fatigued, their head drops…

Onscreen: So they smash the crowns of their heads—putting players’ necks and spines at risk. Some positions, like linemen, get hit more.

Thomas: These players mainly get hit in the back of the head and we have hypothesized that they’re getting hit in the front and hitting the back of their head on the ground when they get hit.

Onscreen: Which is exactly what happened to Jeff Habecker’s son.

Habecker: When they hit, my son went straight to the ground. Not only did he have a frontal impact, he also had a rear impact.It has affected his cognitive thinking. It has affected his balance. It has also affected his short-term memory. He’ll probably never step foot on the field again.

Onscreen: This affects players of all ages.

Duvernay-Tardif: I did experience a concussion end of the 2015 season. We were playing against the Houston Texans. I felt it right away so I raised my hand and said, ‘you know what, I’m not feeling good.’

Onscreen: Several studies have linked repeated head trauma to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E)—a degenerative brain disease. Concussions aren’t the only culprit. Even mild collisions can be dangerous over time.

Onscreen: This kind of technology won’t eliminate the risk of C.T.E. Football will still be a game of collisions. But it can help in other ways.

Chartier: By studying the data of the impacts, we can improve training, we can improve game performance.

Onscreen: Some teams are using the data to change playing techniques.

Habecker: We started teaching them some tackles where instead of tackling with their heads in the front of that player, they tackle with the head to the side of the player.

Onscreen: And at the University of Washington, they use the data during drills to inform tackling and blocking techniques.

Duvernay-Tardif: I want my sport to be the safest sport possible, even though it’s a contact sport.

Onscreen: The goal? A game that protects the players’ most valuable possession.



Digital Producer
Ana Aceves
Production Assistance
Ari Daniel
Editorial Review
Julia Cort
David Condon


Athlete Intelligence
Tim Chartier
Andrew Mather / Kansas City Chiefs
Shutter stock
Rosario Linzana
George Wesley & Bonita Dannells
Ray Moxx
Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy


Sound Effects

Related Links

  • A Preventable Brain Disease

    Athletes who receive multiple concussions are at risk for CTE, a brain disease that causes cognitive impairment.

  • Diagnosing Brain Damage

    New techniques can assess concussions and other head injuries, some directly on the playing field.

  • Brain Trauma

    Even so-called "mild" head injuries can lead to serious concussions with long-term consequences.

  • Mapping the Brain

    Use some of the same imaging techniques neuroscientists use—from MRIs to PET scans—to see inside the huma...