New Blood Test Revolutionizes Concussion Diagnosis

A blood test applies hard numbers to concussion diagnoses that otherwise rely on subjective judgments.

There's some good news out of Canada this week for young athletes and parents worried about head injuries in sports. A newly developed blood test can determine with 90 percent accuracy whether or not an adolescent has suffered a clinical concussion.

This is a potentially huge development for trauma response strategies, in that the blood test applies hard numbers to concussion diagnoses that otherwise rely on subjective judgment.

Scientists with Western University and the Children's Health Research Institute in Ontario studied a group of 12- to 14-year-old athletes with concussion symptoms. The new method involves drawing blood from an individual who suffered head trauma, within 72 hours of the incident, and then analyzing the blood for specific patterns. Those patterns can indicate whether a clinically significant concussion has occurred.

"Over the past ten years, other researchers have looked for specific blood biomarkers - proteins that are released by the brain after a significant injury," study co-author Dr. Douglas Fraser told Seeker, speaking from his offices in London, Ontario.

"We looked at 174 metabolites, which are breakdown products your body is creating all the time," Fraser said. "It's the pattern between those 174 molecules that allows us to detect a concussion. We've been able to bring it down to less than 20 molecules and still maintain the diagnostic accuracy [of 90 percent]."

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Fraser said that this new technology could have a profound impact on how concussions are diagnosed for all athletes. While the initial study focused on male adolescents, the research team plans to expand the study out to other groups, including professional athletes. They also hope to make the test method more mobile and accessible.

Right now, the blood test requires the use of a mass spectrometer, a typically bulky machine that requires a lab and technicians.

"Our hope is to develop a dedicated mass spec machine about the size of a toaster," Fraser said. "You would just prick your finger, get a drop of blood on filter paper and put the paper in the machine. The algorithms and analytics would be built in."

That could put the technology within reach of those who need to make a concussion assessment, especially with kids, such as family doctors or medical personnel affiliated with sports leagues.

"It's a little too early to really say, but I could imagine seeing these machines in emergency rooms, sports medicine clinics, perhaps one day in professional sports locker rooms," Fraser said.

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Fraser added that the test doesn't work immediately after a concussion. It takes a few hours for the metabolites to build up and change. But the test can also detect when metabolites are returning to normal, which could help clinicians determine if and when to send an athlete back onto the field of play.

Fraser hopes the new blood test can be part of a comprehensive concussion response protocol with for all athletes, from middle-school students to college players to NFL linebackers.

"My kids are soccer players and they're heading the ball all the time," he said. "I think there's something so valuable about team sports that I don't limit my kids. I tell them: The rules and regulations are there to protect you. The equipment is there to protect you."

"Are all these things perfect? Of course not. But when you involve the coaches, trainers, parents - and make sure they're evaluated by a proper concussion team - I do believe you can minimize the risk."

The findings were published in the international journal Metabolomics.