Nerve: The concussion-detecting mouthguard that could bring big changes to rugby

Nerve: The concussion-detecting mouthguard that could bring big changes to rugby

A Massey student has created a concussion-detecting mouthguard. Now, he's hoping his invention can help make our most popular sport safer.

A concussion detecting mouthguard has won a Kiwi inventor the top prize in the New Zealand leg of the sixteenth James Dyson Award, a global product design competition that celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers.

Spencer Buchanan, a 22-year-old industrial design graduate at Massey University, has designed a mouthguard with motion sensors that can analyse concussion risks after a player in contact sports like rugby or American football has been hit hard. For winning the Aotearoa portion of the James Dyson Award, Buchanan is getting $4,000 for help in commercialising his invention, known as Nerve.

What makes the mouth guard so different from traditional mouthguards is the fact that it’s wearable tech that boasts inertial motion sensors that can record force. If an athlete wearing the mouth guard takes an impact over a certain threshold, the sensors can send data to a doctor’s iPad or tablet, and calculate the risk of a concussion based on an algorithm that measures the impact, where the impact was focused, and a player’s previous known concussion history. In this sense, it could be a game-changer for rugby and safety while playing rugby.

Buchanan says the idea came to him because of personal experience. “I’ve always been immersed in the rugby culture and played quite a bit of rugby growing up, actually suffering concussions,” he explains. “Rugby and concussion is a topical issue that is constantly under the spotlight. Medical professionals confirmed at the start of this design process that existing head gear only protects against cuts and abrasions and not concussion. With wearable technology becoming an emerging trend in contact sport, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to combine my industrial design knowledge and look to find a solution to the problem.”

Buchanan’s win means he progresses to the finals of the James Dyson Award. For the finals, his invention will be judged against designs from inventors from 20 countries, as well as four runners-up from New Zealand. At stake is $60,000 for commercialisation, and $10,000 for the winner’s university.

The head judge for the James Dyson Award, Mike Jensen, says Buchanan’s invention is especially relevant today because of what we’re learning about rugby and long-term brain injuries. “We must be coming close to a culture change with an older generation of All Blacks linked with dementia,” he says. “What is exciting about Spencer’s design is that it is not one product; he’s developed an entire system encompassing sensors in a fully sealed, non-corrosive mouthguard, a charger unit and an app.”

There is also another key aspect of Buchanan’s design that Jensen believes could disrupt the way we think about sports. “These components also reveal his sensitivity to good design, while offering peace of mind to athletes involved in any contact sport, their medical support and their families.”