Head injuries
January 8, 2014

Concussion Diagnostics


Scott: A report out this week in the journal Pediatrics says that young people who suffer from concussions should lay off reading, homework and video games. That by giving your brain a rest, most can recover in 20 to 50 days. That is twice as fast as those who don’t take a break. And Keith, you are working on a story about how concussions are diagnosed, right?

Keith: Yeah, Scott. Researchers are developing a test that could be a game-changer. Take a look.

Chris Coyle, tight end for the Arizona State Sun Devils, understands that big hits are part of playing big time college football.

Chris Coyle: If you’re out here playing at this level, you kind of accept the risk of what could be happening. But at the same time, obviously, you know, I want to have a good working brain for the rest of my life.

Keith: That is why Coyle, and thirty-five other players, joined another team this season, a research group trying to find a better way to detect concussions. During practices and games, they wore helmets with sensors to measure head impacts. Afterward, the players submitted samples of their blood, saliva and urine. The samples are analyzed at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, in Phoenix, Arizona to see if evidence of head trauma shows up in body fluids as a so-called biomarker.

Brain cells contain genetic material called micro RNA. Normally, tiny spheres containing that material break off and make their way into the spinal fluid, then the bloodstream. During a concussion, the brain actually bounces against the skull, and researchers believe the impact may cause changes in the micro RNA – changes they hope can be detected in blood tests.

Currently, doctors diagnose concussions based on a neurological examination and physical symptoms, a process that can be made more difficult when players eager to stay on the field hide those symptoms.

Taylor Kelley: You know, guys just want to go out and play, you know? They don’t care if their head’s a little banged up.

Keith: At TGen, scientists compare the RNA in each player’s body fluids with the impact data from his helmet to see if they match up.

Keuren Jensen: It might be that we can actually protect players. So, identify players who are at risk but have them take it easy, sit out more, based how their biomarkers are rising over time.

Keith: Researchers found the technology might have helped one of the players in the study. These are the head impacts recorded in his helmet over several weeks. One hit was the equivalent of four times the punch by a heavyweight boxer, the hardest hit received by any player in the study. He continued to play and was diagnosed with a concussion ten days later. It is powerful information that could permanently change the future of football.

Researchers are still working on their tests. They say they will have some of their results in a few months.

Scott: That is pretty interesting, Keith.


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