One-hour photo may need to make room for one-hour blood tests, as a team of Swedish researchers has developed a way to check for sports injuries in the brain soon after contact.

Hockey, football, boxing, and most recently, soccer, have all found themselves, at one point or another, center-stage in the concussion controversy. The NFL is the largest culprit, with growing numbers of retirees falling to CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative disease of the brain that essentially turns all cognitive function to mush, robbing former athletes of their once-titanic strength and turning them violent and depressed.

In this case, researchers were analyzing athletes’ brains for a nerve protein found in the brain, called tau. Similar to the damaging amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer’s patients, which disrupt neural pathways and lead to impaired functioning, tau proteins differ in that they’re actually present in the body normally. It’s through their overabundance that the proteins turn into “tangles,” which then damage the brain.

"Concussions are a growing international problem," Henrik Zetterberg, of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg and lead author of the study, told Reuters. "The stakes for the individual athlete are high, and the list of players forced to quit with lifelong injury is getting ever longer."

Zetterberg and his colleagues collected data on all the members of the Swedish Hockey League — some 288 players. Thirty-five of those players had suffered a concussion during the 2012-2013 season, three of which were so bad that they rendered the athletes unconscious. These 35 hockey players were asked to submit repeated blood samples immediately after the concussion and in the days that followed. The results were compared with those of healthy samples from the beginning of the season.

Within the hour of testing a post-concussion sample, and looking only at tau protein levels, researchers could determine the severity of the blow, if the player needed to rest longer, and if the injury posed risks for lifelong symptoms.

This opens enormously important doors for checking athletes’ health, especially in sports whose main premise is physical contact, such as football or boxing. CTE can only be found after death, upon a coroner’s deep observation of the brain. Developing an on-field, on-ring, or in-rink evaluation method could save countless athletes from themselves.

Zetterberg said the ultimate goal was to implement the test in contexts that have nothing to do with sports — “to have a working kit that can be used for diagnostics in hospitals,” agreed fellow researcher, Yelverton Tegner, who also works as a team doctor for the Swedish national women's soccer team. The end result, if all goes to plan, are entire leagues of athletes, whose futures aren’t written in stone just because their day job requires them to bash their heads together.

 

Source: Shahim P, Tegner Y, Wilson D, et al. Blood Biomarkers for Brain Injury in Concussed Professional Ice Hockey Players. JAMA Neurology. 2014.