A hard hit with a helmet or a collision with another kid may have parents on the sidelines wondering if that blow to the head did any damage to their kids' growing brains. Researchers from Orlando Health, a non-profit health care company, have designed a test to identify when a child experiences brain injury with 94 percent accuracy. Their study, published in the journal Academy Emergency Medicine, outlines the simple blood test and compares its efficacy to that of a state-of-the-art CT scan.

“The idea is to get a test that could be used on the field to help the coaches, trainers, and athletic directors make a decision then and there about whether the child should go back to play,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Linda Papa, a researcher at Orlando Health, in a press release. “If we could find a simple test that takes the guess work out of diagnosing these kids, that would completely change the way we approach concussions and would certainly give parents greater peace of mind.”

When researchers set out to create the test, they first looked at different types of brain injuries that can be detected by a CT scan, which is the current diagnostic approach to detecting brain injuries. They found the biomarker glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) helped to gauge the severity of the injury. The higher the levels of GFAP were present in the blood, the more severe the brain injury was, explained Papa. The proteins found in the glial cells that make up GFAP surround neurons in the brain, so when there’s an injury to those particular brain cells, the GFAP are released into the blood stream.

Knowing this, researchers examined the scans of 257 children, 197 of whom had suffered trauma to the head. Of those children, they administered blood tests and CT scans to 152 children and compared results. Not only were researchers able to identify with 94 percent accuracy which children had experienced a brain injury as indicated by the CT scan, but they were also able to tell the severity of the brain injury using the blood test.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt of the head that causes the brain to move back and forth within the skull, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s this sudden movement that causes damage to brain cells and releases them from the brain and into the bloodstream, signifying a concussion has occurred. Hospitals treat nearly 250,000 children each year for traumatic brain injuries — nearly 700 kids a day.

"This could ultimately change the way we diagnose concussions, not only in children, but in anyone who sustains a head injury," Papa said. "We have so many diagnostic blood tests for different parts of the body, like the heart, liver, and kidneys, but there’s never been a reliable blood test to identify trauma in the brain. We think this test could change that."

Papa and her research team plan to conduct more studies using the blood test, and hope to have it ready for store shelves within the next five years. Until then, parents can continue to bring their child in for a CT scan or to look for signs. According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the most common signs are headaches, being mentally foggy, irritability, dizziness, changes in sleeping patterns, fatigue, sensitivity to light, nausea, and having balancing problems. Suspicion of a brain injury should always be followed up with a health care professional in order to avoid long-term effects.

Source: Mittal M, Papa L, Zonfrillo MR, et al. Performance of Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein in Detecting Traumatic Intracranial Lesions on Computed Tomography in Children and Youth with Mild Head Trauma. Academy Emergency Medicine. 2015.