Science is nerdy and football is sporty and never the twain shall meet. Well, at least that was the line that pop culture tried to feed me over and over and over again. But by teaming up with the Stanford University football program on a project that studies concussions, scientists have turned that nerds vs. jocks story on its head.
Before we get to the juicy, sciency meat (a T-bone steak of informational nuggets), what do concussions and football have to do with each other? I mean, the obvious connection is there: football is a full contact sport and as such, injuries, including concussions, can and do happen. But there’s a deeper link there, too. Recent findings suggest that individuals, specifically former football players, who experience more concussions, tend to have a greater risk of developing brain disorders, like early-onset dementia, and depression.
While improvements in helmet technology and changes in NFL policies have helped make the game safer, the concussion issue still hasn’t been dealt with. Concussions are generally underreported; athletes prefer to risk their health than risk their time on the field. This underreporting problem is compounded by the fact that experiencing previous concussions can make someone more prone to getting another concussion. Each successive concussion is more damaging and takes longer to heal. So basically, the effects of concussions can be greater than the sum of their parts.
And that’s where Stanford comes in. As a top university in both academics and athletics (yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus, and he can give you a top 10 football and academic program), Stanford is the perfect place for a study on the occurrence of concussions in football, and the conditions under which concussions happen.
Dr. Dan Garza of Stanford School of Medicine is outfitting some of the Stanford football team with special mouth-guards that are packed full of fancy measuring devices, like accelerometers and gyrometers. The finely tuned censors will be able to accurately measure the forces acting on an athlete’s head during a game. While previous studies have attached similar devices to helmets, these helmets can slip when the athlete gets hit, and so Dr. Garza believes that the mouth-guards will provide more accurate data. The data will be used to understand how concussions happen, and can be used to aid diagnosis and treatment.
Soon, the Stanford women’s field hockey and lacrosse teams will start their seasons, and when they do, their athletes will also take to the field armed with these mouth-guards. With each play on the field, these student athletes will not just be making great plays, but will also be integral parts of the creation of real knowledge.
Studies like this one are so especially cool because they concern real issues and require the participation of the real people who are directly affected by the issues being studied. Science isn’t just something that happens in the lab, or by mad people in billowy white coats, but by the collaboration between researchers and their communities. Science can, and as Dr. Garza and these students show, does happen everywhere.