It’s clear that concussions are incredibly serious, and that repeated head injuries can have debilitating effects. But traditional test results can take hours, and some players end up back in the game or on the bike, despite a knock to the head.
Now, Swedish researchers think they have found a solution: a blood test that can determine whether a patient has suffered a concussion—and can be administered just one hour after the injury occurs.
During the 2012/2013 Swedish hockey season, a team lead by Henrik Zetterberg of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg tracked 35 players who suffered concussions—three so serious that they were knocked unconscious. The team compared blood samples taken post-injury to samples taken earlier in the season, and found elevated levels of a nerve cell protein called tau, “a promising biomarker to be used both in the diagnosis of concussion and in the decision-making when an athlete can be declared fit to return to play,” says researcher and Ph.D. candidate Pashtun Shahim.
Just one hour after a blow to the head, the researchers could test to see whether a player was free from symptoms and could get back in the game.
But getting the results back still takes a couple of hours, Shahim says. “It is up to the diagnostic industry how much they want to invest in developing a diagnostic kit that is faster.”
That said, it’s a huge step towards protecting athletes, and it would be highly useful in tournament play, or when players have games multiple days in a row.
But that doesn’t mean that you should expect to see coaches giving blood tests anytime soon. For now, they are still done in the lab by trained professionals.
“In the future it is our hope to have a designed test kit where we could evaluate the injured court-side,” says Yelverton Tegner, a researcher on the study, professor of sports medicine and team doctor for the Swedish national women’s football team and a Swedish hockey team. “I would love this test.”