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World Rugby turns to mouthguard and eye-tracking tech to probe head injuries

Image credit: REUTERS/Hannah Peters/Pool/File Photo

The global governing body for rugby union has announced it will trial mouthguards embedded with microchips, along with eye-tracking technology, to monitor impacts during games. It is hoped it will improve the detection and prevention of head injuries.

Over 700 community level players in New Zealand, from under-13 level and upwards, will take part in the study, which starts this month and is being led by academics from the University of Otago in the country. The mouthguards in the trial will collect and transmit data on head impacts in real-time during games.

“Player welfare continues to be a top priority,” said World Rugby chief medical officer Eanna Falvey. “By commissioning and partnering in the research, we can make evidence-based decisions that will advance our understanding of injuries.

“We have been monitoring instrumented mouthguard technology for some time, and rapid advances in sensitivity make it possible to distinguish between head impact, jump, or shouting,” he added, stressing that the scale of the study should not be underestimated.

Clubs in England’s Premiership – Leicester, Gloucester and Harlequins – already use micro-chipped mouthguards to monitor the impact of collisions. Meanwhile, other sport clubs are conducting mouthguard trials, including rugby league side Salford, while Liverpool and Manchester City will also use chipped mouthguards in age-group and women’s teams next season.

World Rugby also said this week that it would evaluate the latest eye-tracking technology to assist with the identification and management of concussions in the sport. This follows recent studies that have suggested that oculomotor function – eye movement – alters at the time of a concussion or shortly afterward.

The governing body will pilot the technology during matches alongside the existing head injury assessment process and also as part of the return-to-play protocols. Two eye-tracking technology providers – EyeGuide and NeuroFlex – will be involved in pilot studies, although details of the competitions in which they will occur have yet to be clarified.

According to the providers, the equipment can capture the necessary data in just 10 seconds, allowing multiple screenings to be conducted.

Falvey believes it can further reduce the chances of a concussed player returning to the fray. “We believe that oculomotor screening examination in rugby has the potential to boost the identification and management of concussions by objectively identifying potential abnormalities in oculomotor function,” he said.

The way the union deal with head injuries is now an overwhelming priority, with World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union, and the Welsh Rugby Union facing a lawsuit from retired players who have been diagnosed with the signs of early-onset dementia.

Many former rugby players have been diagnosed with permanent brain damage, depression or symptoms, and signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy as well as early-onset dementia because of injuries caused by the game.

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