When University of Western Ontario defensive back Kalvin Johnson suffered a concussion in a ferocious collision during a championship football game against Queen’s, the forces that resulted in his brain injury were quickly analyzed.
As the Mustang players celebrated their victory in the Ontario university final last Saturday, Western student researcher Kody Campbell was peering at data on a computer screen that provided him with intricate details on the specific play in which Mr. Johnson was hurt.
“It was the biggest angular rotation hit that we’ve seen all season,” Greg Marshall would later say, sounding more like a neurologist than the Mustangs head football coach.
Mr. Marshall has become well-versed in the concussion vernacular this season after agreeing to take part in a research study where the helmets of the Mustang players have been rigged with a device that monitors blows to the head. His football team is the first in Canada, professional or amateur, to undergo such an extensive monitoring process. Called a GForce tracker (GFT), the unobtrusive electronic device, about the size of a domino, is manufactured in Canada and is fastened to the inside of a player’s helmet.
While small, the monitor is capable of collecting an impressive amount of data, including the force, location and frequency of impacts to the head. It is hoped that, over time, the data gleaned from players who wear helmet sensors might provide new clues that will help reduce the number of concussions.
“I don’t want us having a lot of big hits in practice and this monitor is able to tell me that,” Mr. Marshall said. “If we’re running a drill where the players are recording heavy, repetitive hits, then we’re going to back it off. We get enough hits in games.”
High school and college teams in the United States are also experimenting with the use of sensors similar to the GFT to help monitor concussions. Researchers at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., are using GFTs on high-school players in the Washington area as part of a study to determine if saliva samples can be used to detect when concussions have occurred. The National Football League said it hopes to fit a limited number of players with helmet sensors for a trial run before the end of the current season.
In Canada, the undefeated and No. 1-ranked Mustangs will be wired up again on Saturday when they play the University of Calgary Dinosaurs in a Canadian Interuniversity Sport national semifinal in Calgary. But the only way you would know is if you happened to be inside the Western locker room after a game and spied the helmets lined up on a shelf and connected to a power source, recharging the batteries of the GFTs.
Mr. Campbell, 25, is working on his masters of science in biomechanics at Western and, about 18 months ago, decided to do his thesis on concussions in football. Head injuries to athletes have become a hot-button topic in sports and, as a former football player at Western, Mr. Campbell said it was only natural that he was drawn to study the topic in depth.
Mr. Campbell said he learned of a Canadian electronic design and manufacturing company named Artaflex Inc., based in Markham, Ont., that had only recently begun marketing the GFTs. He called the company and Artaflex agreed to assist Mr. Campbell in his study, providing the university with about 50 of the devices, free of charge; normally, a GFT retails for about $150 per unit.
“We’ve been quietly getting involved in many research projects,” said Gerry Iuliano, 47, an electrical engineer and the co-founder of Artaflex. Mr. Iuliano said the concept behind the product’s development was spurred back in 2011 after hockey superstar Sidney Crosby fell victim to a concussion that cut short his season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The GFT will gauge the “G-force” – the scientific measure used to gauge force on the body when it is accelerated. Mr. Campbell said a lower reading of about 15-Gs is not considered a big hit, sort of like somebody getting a celebratory smack in the head. At the other end of the scale, Mr. Campbell said a hit that registers 100-Gs or more “would be like someone winding up and smacking their head as fast as they could into a wall.”
Mr. Campbell said he has yet to fully quantify the data he has collected on the season, but a couple of things have become clear. “I guess it’s not too surprising to learn that offensive linemen will generally experience more hits during the course of a game than any other position on the team,” he said. But the biggest, hardest hits, Mr. Campbell said, were usually absorbed by the Western running backs. The GFT will also detect, in degrees per second, what is referred to as the angular or rotational acceleration that the head moves after taking a hit, a key factor in causing a concussion.
As for the head injury sustained by Mr. Johnson just before halftime against Queen’s, sidelining him for the rest of the game, the data collected by the GFT paints an interesting picture.
“It shows that he actually had three large impacts prior to the one where he went down,” Mr. Iuliano said. “And the rotational velocity of that last impact that knocked him out was off the chart. I can’t tell you exactly what the reading was, but it was in excess of 2,000 degrees per second.” He said that’s comparable to a toy top rotating six times in one second, a velocity “that gets the brain moving pretty good when it happens.”
Although he was carried off the field on a stretcher, Mr. Johnson has not been reporting any lingering after-effects from the concussion, Mr. Marshall said. But as a precautionary measure, Mr. Johnson will not play in Saturday’s big game.
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