High tech sports jerseys designed to track athlete performance may play a vital role in preventing the sudden collapse and death of professional and amateur athletes.
The recent death of Italian Series B soccer player Piermario Morosini and the earlier collapse of 23-year-old Fabrice Muamba during a game in England in March, has reignited the medical mystery of why athletes fall to sudden heart attacks.
A technology breakthrough in sports metrics may hold the key in preventing, or at least unlocking part of the mystery, for anyone who has congenital heart problems.
German research giant Fraunhofer is field testing clothing woven with sensors to capture critical performance data. Like sensors on Formula One race cars, data is streamed wirelessly through optical networks and then processed through complex software and algorithms to provide an instant snapshot of performance.
While F1 teams look to gain 1/100th of a second, sports executives and coaches want to see which player is putting out the mythical "110 per cent" and which is lagging to enhance their in-game strategy decisions.
However, as group manager of the Fitness Shirt project, Dr. Christian Hofmann, points out, the sensors also capture ECG streams and respiratory streams, which can also be used to flag cardiac distress.
In almost all cases of sudden athlete death the victims show no sign of heart disease or abnormality making it extremely hard to detect. The fabrics, which are also being developed by other researchers around the world, could also be adapted to monitor the elderly and newborns in their cribs.
"Certainly the data is there," he said. "Though this is not what we are developing at this time. If someone wanted to license it and develop it, that would be fine. We don't have the resources or budget because for medical applications there are so many standards but it certainly could be done."
Weaving sensors into textiles is not dramatically new, but the twist is in streaming data via Radio Frequency (RF) receivers around a contained area. The coaching system has sensors on shirts and socks, capturing distance, stride, acceleration as well as vital statistics. It can be adapted to almost any sport, Hofmann said.
"There are 22 players on the field and there is some 50 points of data being captured," he said. "It's a lot of data."
It's an intriguing technology, says Dr. Greg Wells, a professor in the at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education and an associate scientist in physiology and exercise medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children, because most data is now captured by equipment stuck on with glue and worn with a harness.
His research focuses on physical exercise and its role in treatment and prevention if chronic disease and as former director of Sport Science at the Canadian Sport Centre has worked with elite athletes.
"It's fascinating in that there's a lot of effort in trying to develop technology to monitor performance in real time both in training and competition," he said adding ECGs in the lab don't replicate real competitive performance.
The immediate attraction to a sensor woven into fabric is the benign nature, says Dr. Joel Kirsh, a pediatrics cardiac electro-physiologist focusing on heart rhythm abnormalities.
"It's really hard to get a kid to wear a monitor for 24 hours, even though they have become a lot smaller," he said. "And in newborns, their skin is so fragile the glue on the sensors can actually burn them."
Neither Dr. Kirsh and Dr. Wells have worked directly with the Fraunhofer jerseys but are familiar with research into sensors and monitoring technology.
"It would be very interesting to monitor a patient in the real world, playing soccer or in the park," said Dr. Kirsh. "With a monitor they don't usually want to do anything because they don't want people to see them with it."