Research suggests women more likely to get concussed, but most research has been done only on men

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Let’s get this straight, many of his players thought: You want us to wear cages on our helmets, masks covering our mouths, and now these computer-chip embedded mouthguards, too?

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“I was a little reluctant at the start,” Graham Thomas, head coach of UBC’s women’s hockey team, said of a brain-injury study his players and the men’s team are part of. “But from talking to the players, they feel normal.

“(The researchers) thought of everything to make them user-friendly. Part of our hesitancy was we were coming off our COVID year, we were wearing cages and masks already, a lot of players were worried they might suffocate out there.

“A lot of them opted out early on, it wasn’t mandatory, but the mouthguards got some great reviews by the players using them and it’s been a good experience.”

The multidisciplinary research project examines how the brain changes after a sports concussion and how repeated hits may lead to long-term changes to the brain, using digital chips inside the mouthguards.

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Despite any initial skepticism by coaches and players, the women T-Birds are on their way to the national hockey championship at the end of the month in PEI, while the men are in Edmonton this weekend for the Canada West hockey final.

The high-tech mouthguard that tracks head impacts during women's and men's varsity hockey games.  Photo: Kai Jacobson/UBC Faculty of Applied Science.
The high-tech mouthguard that tracks head impacts during women’s and men’s varsity hockey games. Photo: Kai Jacobson/UBC Faculty of Applied Science. Photo by Kai Jacobson /PNG

The researchers are led by Lyndia Wuan assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UBC specializing in injury biomechanics and the study of traumatic brain injuries.

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Her doctorate at Stanford involved studying brain trauma in football players, and she realized that helmets do not offer the best spot to place motion sensors.

“There’s a lot of space (inside helmets) and, honestly, they’re easier to work with than mouthguard sensors, but helmets are not designed to be glued to the head during impact,” Wu said.

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“In fact, it’s much safer for helmets to come off during big impacts to the head, and so really if we put sensors on the helmet those sensors are going to be measuring the motion of the helmet coming off the head when the head is being hit and not the motion of the head.”

Mouthguards, on the other hand, offer a unique platform for measuring head motion.

“The upper teeth are kind of a bony landmark on the head, directly connected to the skull,” Wu said. “And so a mouthguard sitting on the upper dentition is directly connected to the skull and can achieve much better coupling to the skull and directly measure skull motion.”

Until researchers are able to get real-time feedback about what’s happening to the brain during impacts such as those found on the ice and playing fields — until there is a wearable MRI, as Wu put it — mouthguard sensors are pretty much the closest researchers can get to measure the motion of the skull.

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The chips inside the mouthguards are much like the sensors in a smartphone that measures steps, balance and so on, only with a wider range to measure more severe impacts.

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Another aspect of the study is both male and female athletes are taking part. Research suggests women are more likely to sustain a concussion than men, but most of the research to date has been performed only on male football players.

“There is evidence indicating that female athletes are more prone to concussions and they could be suffering worse outcomes than men do,” Wu said. “So we really need to have more women’s sports data, that’s a big motivation for the current study.

“Looking at the men’s and women’s hockey in parallel, we can do a more controlled comparison between the two populations and understand if an injury could be due to exposure differences or whether there are other factors at play that affect risk levels.”

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