Blood tests for brain injuries: Will new test protect our child athletes?

by John McKiggan

Concussions are a “trending” injury in sports nowadays. I have been trying to help raise public awareness about concussions – the causes, effects, and how we can avoid them, by writing about the issue in past blog posts.

I think it is fair to say the public is finally becoming aware of the dangers of concussions and how often they can happen. The recent Canadian study that linked half of all concussions in child athletes to hockey was an eye opener to many.

The study suggested many brain injuries are being caused by checking from behind. Something that has been against the rules for 20 years.

So perhaps the first step in brain injury prevention among our child athletes is strictly enforcing the rules designed to prevent injury!

Many ways to suffer brain injury

While concussions, and certainly repeated concussions, have been shown to contribute to brain injuries, there are other ways for athletes to suffer lasting brain injuries.

For example, new studies show that repeated blows to the head, such as those common in any contact sport, can cause brain degenerative disorders.

I have written about the tragic death of Junior Seau. Doctors determined that he suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Seau, whose brain showed symptoms consistent with CTE, was never diagnosed with a single concussion in his career as a prolific NFL linebacker.

New tests

According to a recent article in Sports Illustrated, a study out of three American universities found elevated levels of a certain protein in the blood of players who received the most hits to the head. This protein, S100B, is indicative of brain injuries.

Interestingly, the study also shows that none of the players with abnormally high S100B levels suffered a concussion. This supports theories that brain injuries can be caused by repeated hits to the head, even without any major concussive blows.

The study opened the possibility for real-time blood testing for brain injuries. Nicola Marchi of the Cleveland Clinic who took part in the study says:

“In theory, you can finger prick an individual and within three or five minutes you can have a response. This seems feasible for S100B, so in an ideal world we would like to develop a particular device for quick measurement of S100B. Having a device could be of great help on the field, in the locker room. This is basically for detection of an acute event.”

Marchi hopes that the device could eventually be manufactured and made available for about $40 each.

The hope is that developing a cheap and simple test to diagnose potential brain injury can prevent repeated or more serious injuries.

Using our heads

With the dangers of CTE being discovered, it is not good enough for us to determine that athletes have been afflicted. A side-line test that shows the production of a particular protein following a hit can be crucially important in leading the way to preventing the onset of the de-generative disorder.

If we know which hits lead to lasting problems we can more appropriately tailor our rules, equipment, and treatment techniques. Hopefully, with more research, we can save our children and our professional athletes from long term brain injuries which can result in depression, mood swings, headaches and suicide.

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