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Issue Date: April 2012


Hit Man

Researcher Adam Bartsch hopes his high-tech mouth guard will help unlock the mysteries of sports-related brain injuries.
Matt Tullis

Adam Bartsch sits on the cold metal bleachers in the Brooklyn Ice Arena watching the St. Ignatius High School varsity hockey team practice.

One of the players closes in on a puck that's been sent up the ice when his opponent slams into him, forcing his head into the glass and prompting Bartsch to nearly jump to his feet with a "Yes!"

He isn't rooting for anyone to get hurt during this mid-December practice. He's just excited that the player who hit the wall is wearing the high-tech mouth guard and helmet-mounted camera that's the basis for research Bartsch is conducting with Dr. Edward Benzel of the Cleveland Clinic.

Tiny accelerometers and gyroscopes mounted to a circuit board inside the blue plastic mouth guard collect data from on-ice hits, measuring speed and impact. The hope is that the statistics collected by the device will ultimately give doctors, coaches and athletes a better understanding of brain injuries and their relation to sports.

"Suffice it to say, getting hit in the head repeatedly is not a great idea, but we still don't know what the repercussions are," Bartsch says. "We have a lot of theories, but we still don't know."

After practice, Bartsch sits at a picnic table in the lobby of the ice arena uploading data from the mouth guard to his laptop using the USB connection that's attached to the mouth guard's strap. Data from this hit, and several others today, are some of the first collected for this project.

Researchers have been trying to capture accurate head-impact data for years, but they've been thwarted by how difficult it is to measure data on live subjects. The mouth guard is able to do that, the 32-year-old explains, because it's held in place by an athlete's teeth, which don't move upon impact. It may be the key to finally getting accurate information.

Bartsch, a native of a small town near Ithaca, N.Y., studied engineering at The Ohio State University and then stayed to get his master's degree. As an undergraduate student, he worked with a professor on designing a new knee joint for crash-test dummies. During that time, Bartsch also was tasked with finding a way to measure hits to the brain on a live person for the automotive industry.

"Which is difficult," he says. "What you normally do is you either use crash test dummies or a cadaver."

He was in the early stages of studying head impacts on live people when he left Columbus in 2006 to work on a doctorate degree in the Cleveland Clinic's neurosurgery department. There, Bartsch met neurosurgeon Dr. Vince Miele, a former boxer and ringside doctor who had been looking for a way to measure when a fighter has suffered a brain injury. That's when Miele, who is now at West Virginia University, and Bartsch started talking about mouth guards.

"We both had these ideas separately," Bartsch says. "The stars just aligned, and now we're working on the project you see today."

The St. Ignatius hockey team is the first to wear the high-tech mouth guard, and the first three prototypes used have already shown Bartsch there are several points that need refining, including strengthening the circuit board and making the device so it's able to withstand saliva seeping into its circuits. "We're looking at what worked and what didn't," he says. "There's plenty on both sides of the ledger."

Boxers in Las Vegas will use the newest prototype — the fourth incarnation — this spring. And football players at multiple levels could wear them this fall, possibly even in the NFL, according to Bartsch.

Data collection could last for years before conclusions can be drawn, however. "We want to get [the guards] in the hands of as many kids as possible so we can gather baseline data," Bartsch says. "We need to grow those numbers. That is crucial."


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