Using a blood test to test for concussions

A blood test for concussions. It’s new and in development right now, but doctors say it could completely change the playing field … and take the guesswork out of the game.

It starts with a hit to the head – or a force that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull.

Dr Melvin Wichter, neurologist, Advocate Christ Medical Center: “The cortex is our thinking, talking and understanding part of the brain.”

Axons carry messages from the cortex to deeper parts of the brain. But when the brain is injured, those pathways get sheered – and a protein called tau leaks out, disrupting the flow of information.

Dr Wichter: “We’ve known for quite a while this tau protein is found in the spinal fluid of athletes with serious concussions. It’s incredibly impractical to do spinal taps to detect tau protein.”

That’s why Dr Melvin Wichter, a neurologist at Advocate Christ Medical Center in south suburban Oak Lawn, says a blood test – that detected tau protein in a small study of Swedish hockey players who suffered concussions — is an exciting and promising breakthrough … if the results can be confirmed.

Dr Wichter: “They studied the blood at hours one, 12, 24, 36 and six days and found tau protein, which is exclusively found in the cortex of the brain, was markedly elevated – five to 10 times the baseline. It stayed elevated through the entire duration of the concussive syndrome, and most important normalized once the symptoms resolved.”

The higher the levels of tau, the more severe the concussion. Dr Wichter hopes the test will help determine the relationship between elevated tau and CTE – or chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a condition found in patients with a history of multiple concussions.

Dr Wichter: “The big question in my mind is, what is the relationship of tau elevation and subsequent development of CTE or football dementia? And even in a larger sense, if that wasn’t in the picture, Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most pervasive causes of dementia in the world, is also notable for the deposition of tau protein. If that can be linked to a blood test, what an amazing breakthrough that would be.”

The scientists in Sweden who developed the tau test are planning additional studies with both ice hockey players and boxers. But they’re not stopping there … they’re working on another concussion test that analyzes neurofilament light, a protein present after destructive rotational forces on the brain.

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