Dec 18, 2023
WCU teams up with Penn State on concussion impact research

In the spring of 2021, Clayton Bardall approached Martin Tanaka, a professor in WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology, about a project to use instrumented mouthguards to record head impacts with the hope of making contact sports safer and reducing the likelihood of a concussion.

An engineering grad student at Western Carolina and former tight end for the football team, Bardall wanted to combine his two passions to make an impact on future generations.

A recent story from WCU detailed the efforts of Bconcussionardall in making contact sports safer. Below is an excerpt from the WCU story.

“I began experiencing symptoms and went under the concussion protocol,” Bardall said. “Having firsthand experience, I wanted to get a better understanding of head impacts and what effects they have on the brain, whether it be side, behind or front impact.”

Bardall earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from WCU and due to COVID-19 rules was allowed an additional year of eligibility and was able to continue playing football while earning a master’s degree.

“As soon as I stepped on campus, I knew WCU was the right fit for me,” Bardall said. “I broke my ankle my senior year of high school, first football game of the season. I was a redshirt freshman and with the COVID eligibility year, I have been able to not only continue my education but continue playing football.”

As Tanaka was working to bring the project with Bardall together, he attended an engineering conference in Columbus, Ohio, where he sought out his colleague, Reuben Kraft from Penn State, who specializes in injury biomechanics.

“I knew that Reuben was the right person to talk to and since I was going to the ASME national conference, there was a good chance that I would see him there,” Tanaka said.

The project is a collaboration, with WCU collecting head impact data during football games and practices. Penn State researchers use the head movement data and finite element analysis to calculate the strain in each tissue element.

“Brain tissue strain depends upon the direction of impact, existence of twisting movements, the geometry of the brain and material properties of the tissue,” Tanaka said. “The goal of this research is to develop a better understanding of the connection between brain tissue strain caused by head impacts and cognitive function. It is a great collaborative project between WCU’s engineering program, WCU athletics and Penn State.”

» ALSO SEE: Study examines abnormal heart function among elite athletes

Ten mouthguards were custom-made for WCU players. Bardall took the impressions himself and the molds were sent off to Prevent Biometrics to create custom mouthguards.

The players were tested to establish a cognitive function baseline at the beginning of the study. Following a severe head impact, participants were tested again to see if there was a change in cognitive function. Cognitive performance scores were provided in the following areas – verbal memory, reaction time, visual motor speed, visual memory and impulse control.

To read the full story from Western Carolina University about their grad student attempting to reduce the rate of suffering a concussion in athletics, click here. 

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