Researchers have been hard at work identifying potential biomarkers for concussions in hopes that one day a blood test may be used to diagnose brain injuries quickly and accurately. Now, a small Canadian study suggests that dream may come true in the not too distant future.
The study, published in the journal Metabolomics, suggests a simple blood test developed by the researchers could potentially identify concussions with more than 90% certainty. To do this, the test looks for over 100 markers identified in past studies.
“We were pleasantly surprised, when we looked at the pattern of metabolites [markers], that we could identify people who were injured with no other information and with greater than 90 percent certainty,” said lead researcher Dr. Douglas Fraser, a consultant in pediatric critical care medicine at the Children’s Health Research Institute in London, Ontario.
To assess the new test, Fraser’s team used the tool to detect signs of concussions in 29 teen hockey players – only some of which had experienced brain injuries.
In this small test, the tool seemed to be highly effective and accurate. However, many experts urge caution about the results.
“It might have potential for diagnosis of concussion, but these are preliminary results with only 29 patients,” said Dr. John Kuluz, director of traumatic brain injury and neurorehabilitation at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami.
To know whether the test is truly effective, it will have to be validated in much larger studies with significantly more patients, says Kuluz.
Kuluz also suggests the test wouldn’t be particularly useful, asserting that “there are only a small number of patients where the diagnosis is in doubt.”
Despite this claim, an objective medical test for concussions and signs of traumatic brain injury could be a gamechanger in both sports and the military. With immediate diagnostic tests, injured soldiers or athletes could be tested quickly and removed from danger as soon as the injury happens, instead of waiting for symptoms to appear minutes or hours later.
“In those cases such a test could be helpful,” Kuluz concedes.
Fraser says past attempts at blood tests have been unreliable because “people have been looking for one or two proteins floating around in blood that are released from the brain after it’s been injured.”
“But that approach hasn’t yielded great results, probably because every patient is different and every injury is different. So it’s probably a little naive to believe one or two proteins are going to give us the answer we need,” he said.
Instead, Fraser’s team used between 20 to 40 biomarkers selected from a set of 174 potential markers to make the new test more accurate.
The team also believes the blood test may be useful for monitoring the healing process following a brain injury.
“It looks like these patterns stay abnormal for up to three months,” Fraser said. “There is a potential that following the profile over time, you can get accurate information about the healing process.”
The next step, according to Fraser, is testing the validity of the blood test in other groups besides teens. Specifically, the team is looking into its effectiveness in the military and working to make the tool even more efficient by developing a machine capable of running the test using just a single drop of blood.