Pioneering research from Sweden now enables diagnosis of concussion and brain injuries via a blood test. Biomarkers present in the blood can determine whether or not it's safe for athletes to return to the field, for instance, with the test most effective an hour from the time the injury was sustained.
The study was based on findings from ice hockey players, with the contact sport providing key insights into the occurrence of head injuries. Scientists took blood from athletes who had suffered blows to the head, finding increased presence of neuron-specific enolase, S-100 calcium-binding protein B, neurofilament light and total tau (T-tau). They also took samples from athletes yet to begin the hockey season, who showed markedly lower - and indeed normal - levels of the same key proteins. From there, scientists took several blood tests from 35 ice hockey players who sustained a concussion. T-tau was found to be the most prevalent of the elevated proteins, particularly within the hour following the injury. While it remained high over the following days, it was at its peak immediately after the concussion. 288 players in total (all from the Swedish Hockey League) were observed over the five-month study period.
"In ice hockey and other contact sports, repeated concussions are common, where the brain has not finished healing after the first blow," said the study's leader, Henrik Zetterberg of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg. "This kind of injury is particularly dangerous, but there have not been any methods for monitoring how a concussion in an athlete heals... Concussions are a growing international problem. The stakes for the individual athlete are high, and the list of players forced to quit with life-long injury is getting ever longer."
It's hoped that the findings will allow researchers to develop a portable testing kit that can be used at professional and amateur sports matches where players are at a high risk of head injury. The technology is also likely to make its way to hospital emergency rooms, with study co-author Yelverton Tegner of the Lulea University of Technology noting that it would be invaluable "to have a working kit that can be used for diagnostics in hospitals, and perhaps also at rink-side or in stadiums." The test could then be used for all manner of injuries, regardless of how they were sustained.