It is looking increasingly likely that a simple blood test could be widely used to diagnose concussions in the relatively-near future. New research shows that a protein linked to head trauma is detectable in blood up to a week after a brain injury, indicating the protein could be a reliable biomarker used to diagnose concussions.
The preliminary study, published in the journal JAMA Neurology, is described as “a substantial step” forward in the development of a test that could be used in a wide range of settings – such as the battlefield or on the sideline of sports matches.
The proteins detected by researchers at the government’s Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences is just one being assessed for potential concussion biomarkers. Dr. Ramon Diaz Arrastia, co-author of the editorial which accompanied the research says each biomarker is likely to be useful in their own ways, as they “will tell us something slightly different” about the specific injury.
For the study, Dr. Linda Papa, an Orlando Health emergency medicine specialist, and several colleagues tested almost 600 adults who sought treated for head injuries at Orlando Regional Medical Center.
Approximately half of the participants experienced brain injuries from car crashes, falls, sports, or other activities. Most of these concussions were mild, with symptoms including loss of consciousness, amnesia, and feeling disoriented. The rest of the adults included in the study had fractures or other non-brain trauma.
All participants gave blood samples starting four hours after the initial injury, then periodically for seven days. The researchers then evaluated these samples for two proteins called GFAP and UCH-L1. These proteins are typically present in brain cells, but following a brain injury they can leak through the blood-brain barrier into the bloodstream.
The researchers did find low levels of the proteins in the bloodstreams of patients with non-brain trauma, however, the levels were much higher in concussion patients. UCH levels tended to rise quickly, then substantially decline within two days of the injury. On the other hand, GFAP levels stayed high for up to a week after the injury.
While one benefit of these tests could potentially be diagnosing concussions as they happen in war zones and football fields, Dr. Papa suggests an even bigger benefit could be diagnosing concussions that are often looked over.
Many people who experience brain injuries put off on visiting a medical professional as their injury may initially seem not serious. However, they may seek treatment a few days later when it can be harder to diagnose the problem. These blood tests could make it easier to identify a concussion days after an injury and determine if other neurological testing or treatment is needed.
The results are considered preliminary, and it will likely be years before these types of devices are in wide use. However, Papa cited blood tests currently being used to diagnose problems in other organs, such as the heart liver and kidneys, saying, “and now we’re really coming close to having something for the brain.”