CLEVELAND - Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic are testing the blood of local college football players for a protein that could indicate a concussion.
The Plain Dealer newspaper reported that the samples will be screened to see if they contain a protein that's known to leak into the blood after a head injury.
If the study confirms the predictive value of the protein, it could lead to simple blood tests to confirm concussions, rather than expensive emergency room visits.
"You need an objective test that spits out a number," Damir Janigro told the newspaper. Janigro, a Clinic neuroscientist, is leading the project along with colleague Nicola Marchi.
The $250,000 government-sponsored study is being done in collaboration with University of Rochester Medical Center's Jeffrey Bazarian.
The test could also help track the long-term effects of high-impact sports like football or boxing. The test would also be valuable to the military, as soldiers often face head injuries when a roadside bomb explodes.
"If we have an objective measurement, an indicator of neurological doom, I think some people will take it into account and change their lifestyle," Janigro said. Traumatic brain injury accounts for more than 1 million emergency room visits each year, according to a recent report by a panel of brain-injury experts.
About one-quarter of those injuries are sports related, and though many are classified as mild, as many as 15 percent of patients can still experience impairment a year later. In the United States, the standard for detecting a concussion - a brain injury that results from an impact - is the computerized-tomography (CT) scan.
It can cost several thousand dollars and can miss harm that is more subtle than bleeding in the brain.
"In general, for a concussion of minor severity, on MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT you will see absolutely nothing" to indicate damage, Janigro said. Even when impacts don't cause obvious symptoms - such as unconsciousness, lingering confusion and seizures - they can injure the brain in lasting ways.
A Purdue University study of 21 high school football players in 2010 found signs of "significant" brain-function impairment in four players who had taken hard hits, but not been diagnosed with concussions. Tests that measure the protein that indicates brain injuries are available almost everywhere, except the United States, Janigro said.
The Cleveland research, which involves football players from both Baldwin Wallace College and John Carroll University, is attempting to gather more information about the accuracy of the test. Blood samples are taken both before and after a game to measure levels of the protein. Preliminary results from 33 players show a higher level of the protein in those who had the most head impacts.
Janigro said the ideal test would be portable and inexpensive, like a diabetes blood glucose monitor or a home pregnancy test. It would require approval from the Food and Drug administration.
The Associated Press