Diagnosing Brain Injuries With a Hearing Test?

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Scientists are looking everywhere imaginable in the hunt for an objective test for concussions. Most studies have focused on advanced imaging techniques and blood tests, but there are other ways researchers are attempting to scientifically diagnose brain injuries.

One such attempt may be onto something, as a small study published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests testing the brain’s ability to process sound after a concussion or traumatic brain injury could be an effective way to diagnose brain injuries.

By measuring the brain’s electrical reactions to speech sounds, the team of researchers at Northwestern University could accurately pinpoint children who had recently experienced a concussion 90% of the time. The test was also able to identify those who hadn’t experienced a concussion with 95% accuracy.

“This biomarker could take the guesswork out of concussion diagnosis and management,” said the study’s lead author and director at the laboratory, Nina Kraus.

“With this new biomarker, we are measuring the brain’s default state for processing sound and how that has changed as a result of a head injury. This is something patients cannot misreport, you cannot fake it or will your brain to perform better or worse.”

The study was small, involving just 40 children being treated for brain injuries – as well as a similar group of children without head injuries. The researchers placed sensors to the children’s heads which measured the automatic electric reaction to sound stimulus.

Based on the results, the children with a concussion averaged 35% less electrical response to pitch. This was most pronounced early on, and returned to normal as the children recovered.

Kraus says it is “not surprising that a blow to the head would disrupt this delicate machinery” because sound processing is such a complex brain function. “It is the most precise, most complicated computational work the brain has to do,” she notes.

While the findings could point to a reliable biomarker that can be the basis for an objective clinical diagnostic tool, significantly more research will need to be done before any such tool could come to market. The next step will be to confirm the findings in larger study populations.

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