by Noah Rosendorf ‘17
Each year more than two million people get emergency room treatment for concussions and other brain injuries. Even so, concussions are traditionally difficult to diagnose. The identification is subjectively confirmed by examining the patients’ symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, loss of memory and dizziness. MRIs or other scans may not show that a concussion has occurred. In the midst of such uncertainty, a blood test promises to revolutionize the diagnosis of concussions.
A study reported in the October 2016 issue of the journal “Metabolomics” states that markers in the blood may be used to diagnose concussions with 90-percent accuracy. The study was funded by the Children’s Health Foundation in Canada. Dr. Douglas Frasier searched for the markers of a concussion in 29 adolescent hockey players. Frasier found out that metabolites in the blood form specific patterns when there is a concussion. Metabolites are tiny molecules which result from one’s metabolism. The inexpensive blood test must be taken within 72 hours of the brain injury. The abnormal patterns are visible for up to three months after a concussion. Researchers are presently studying the effect of the test on adults.
Athletes are often hesitant to admit to their symptoms when speaking to the doctor after an injury. They may minimize the effects stemming from their blow to the head. The blood test has the potential to protect athletes and would confirm the need for them to follow the concussion protocol. This may result in them being sidelined for longer periods, even if they are not exhibiting severe symptoms. Doctors usually advise concussion patients to rest and not participate in strenuous activities until their symptoms are gone. The test could also help determine what other testing and treatment is needed.
Another new blood test is on the horizon to predict the concussion recovery time of athletes. A January 2017 report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that detection of a blood protein called tau helps athletes monitor recovery after a concussion. Dr. Jessica Gill, an NIH Lasker Clinical Research Scholar, studied the changes in tau in soccer, football, basketball, hockey and lacrosse athletes. The levels of tau were assessed several times following head trauma. Concussion athletes who had not been cleared to play had a higher tau level compared to uninjured athletes and non-athletes. This new study has 80-percent accuracy and may be helpful in monitoring athletes’ readiness to return to sports. This would be a big step forward with identifying and monitoring injuries in athletes, victims of car accidents, soldiers on the battlefield and everyday adult and childhood head traumas.