Concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are one of the most pressing medical issues, and not just in sports. But one of the fundamental problems has been that diagnosis is difficult and largely depends on CT scans and guesswork. However, the FDA has approved a new blood test that will make it much easier to diagnose concussions and act accordingly.
The process works by measuring two proteins the brain releases into the blood when concussed, UCH-L1 and GFAP. The proteins flood into the bloodstream 15 minutes after injury, and linger in elevated levels up to twelve hours after. Studies on the test have found it rules out brain damage 99.6% of the time, and spots damage 97% of the time. It won’t replace CT scans and neurological tests, which will be the next step if the test comes back positive, but it will help decide whether somebody needs to be referred for treatment.
This has a few drawbacks, from a sports perspective. Results take three to four hours to be returned by a lab, so it’s not going to be a quick sideline test. It also won’t be able to measure potential damage from “sub-concussive” hits, which are increasingly seen as tied to CTE. The quest for a diagnostic tool for CTE is still ongoing; currently, the only way to diagnose it is by autopsying the brain after the patient dies. Still, concussions on their own can be enormously dangerous, whether they happen on the field, on the road in a wreck, or in a workplace accident, and any test that makes them easier to spot will make us safer and healthier.