NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Fewer boys in Tennessee are playing football. That is according to a national group that tracks high school athletes.

It’s also a nationwide trend as concerns about head injuries grow.

During Week 4 of the NFL season, the country witnessed firsthand just how life-altering a concussion can be. Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was stretchered and carted off the field with head and neck injuries after he was sacked.

“Our goal is to try and understand the force of head impact,” said Dr. Douglas Terry, Neuropsychologist and Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Sports Concussion Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. 

Now, doctors at Vanderbilt are studying the way football players are impacted by head injuries using a customized mouthguard.

“We’ve invented a really small sensor into an instrumented mouthguard, a mouthguard that is custom fit for individuals, and inside that rubber is the sensor that’s able to detect force, frequency of hit and all the other playing positions,” Dr. Terry said.

This new tool is something Dr. Scott Zuckerman, Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Sports Concussion Center, believes will have better outcomes than past technology.

“It used to be helmet-based sensors, but that was found to be very unreliable, so to have a mouthguard that’s fixed to the roof of their mouth is a good surrogate for the forces that are going on in the skull and the brain,” Dr. Zuckerman said.

It’s the country’s most popular sport, but across the nation, the number of players putting on the pads seriously dwindling. The number of players has dropped to the lowest level in nearly 25 years.

Tennessee reported a nearly 6% drop in the last decade.

How to keep players safe is the main goal with the hopes that eventually they’ll be able to come up with a road map for the future.

“The first step to making the game safer is through rule changes, concussion protocol and just learning and getting data about the head impacts during practice and a game,” Dr. Zuckerman said.

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Currently, the research project involves four NFL franchises wearing the smart mouthguard as well as Vanderbilt University and seven other college football teams. On Vanderbilt’s squad, 40 student-athletes are participating in the research.