Long-lasting brain trauma as a result of repeated injuries or concussions has garnered much attention in recent years, especially from football lovers and the National Football League (NFL). Several high-profile cases of former players developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a serious degenerative brain disease, has led to the NFL investing tens of millions of dollars into methods used to definitively identify and prevent head trauma.
As is the case with many injuries, diagnosing concussions is a relatively subjective process, involving self-reporting of symptoms and assessments by experts on the field. Finding an objective way to test for brain trauma would dispel issues of players not being willing to report their symptoms and would give team physicians an irrefutable reason to call someone off the field.
Scientists are using NFL-supported technology to analyze proteins found in blood and spinal fluid that may correlate with concussions and brain injuries, such as neurofilament light (NF-L). Coincidentally, this NF-L protein could hold the key to detecting sub-concussion brain injuries.
A study conducted by Jonathan Oliver, a professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian University, and his team took blood samples from starters and non-starters, except those who were diagnosed with concussions, throughout the offseason, before two-a-day practices, right after two-a-day practices and then every 2-3 weeks until the end of the season.
The team found that non-starters NF-L levels remained relatively unchanged throughout the season, while starter’s levels rose sharply around two-a-day practices, fell toward the beginning of the season and then slowly moved back up as they gained more playing time.
Oliver compared the player’s results to those with diagnosed concussions in order to help “identify at what point players may get to a level that we’re seeing elevations in this marker, NF-L, such that they match what somebody who has a concussion looks like,” Oliver told The Washington Post.
It is incredibly common for athletes, especially football players, to avoid reporting symptoms of brain trauma, and tests like these would ensure that treatment is given when needed. Though the research is in its early stages and pulling players off the field for a spinal tap or blood test in the middle of a game likely won’t happen anytime soon, observing these biomarkers still offers valuable insight into the sport’s most pressing issue.
Top photo courtesy of US Coast Guard Academy, CC0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.