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New Blood Test Can Detect Concussions

April 1st, 2016

Good concussion news! (I never thought I would type those words.) Scientists have come up with a simple blood test that can detect concussion up to seven days after the injury, taking the guesswork out of making a diagnosis.

Concussions have reached almost epidemic proportions in young people, especially among those who play sports. Whether a child plays Varsity, JV, Pop Warner, or just neighborhood soccer, concussions are a risk. Kids hit each other, hit their heads on the ground, run blindly into goalposts, head the ball, and run head-first into helmets.

I got my first concussion playing field hockey in gym class. The coach told us to “be aggressive” and “go after the ball.” I heard her. I focused on the ball as keenly as my opponent, Kathy. We ran full-force into each other, skull against skull. I was lucky—my doctor sidelined me for a few weeks, and made my parents torture me by keeping me awake for the first 24 hours. He knew that a concussion was likely. FYI—Kathy had the same injury, but she didn’t see a doctor and didn’t even tell her parents what happened. She was an actual athlete (as opposed to me, an unwilling gym participant), and was back playing field hockey the next day.

Back then, no one knew the potential long-term effects of concussion. It was “just” another sports injury. We’ve learned a lot since then, including that concussions can have serious effects, especially among children. According to an article on ScienceDaily.com:

“If patients are not diagnosed properly and treated appropriately, it could lead to long-term problems,” said Linda Papa, MD, MSC, an emergency medicine physician and NIH funded researcher at Orlando Health. Untreated, or under-treated traumatic brain injuries like concussions, can lead to prolonged bouts with headaches, dizziness, memory loss and depression.

The test involves look for a glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), which is released when brain cells are damaged. The proteins make their way to the bloodstream, where they can be found for up to a week. So while we cannot directly see injury to the brain, GFAP acts as a marker, a biological neon sign that points out the existence of damage. The blood test has been shown to be 94 percent accurate when compared with CT scans, which are expensive and expose the patient to radiation.

“This could ultimately change the way we diagnose concussions, not only in children, but in anyone who sustains a head injury,” said Papa. “We have so many diagnostic blood tests for different parts of the body, like the heart, liver and kidneys, but there’s never been a reliable blood test to identify trauma in the brain. We think this test could change that,” she said.