Levels of certain proteins in the brain and spinal fluid of people who suffer continuing issues as a result of concussions are different from those who haven’t had concussions, according to a new small study published today in JAMA Neurology, raising the possibility that doctors may soon have objective markers to assess the severity of brain damage after head trauma.
The study is the first to examine biomarkers in the cerebrospinal fluid of athletes with post-concussion symptoms.
Researchers studied 31 people, 16 of whom were Swedish professional hockey players with post-concussion syndrome — a condition in which patients experience symptoms such as headaches, mood changes and difficulty concentrating for extended periods of time after a head injury. Players were compared to 15 neurologically healthy individuals.
After sampling the cerebrospinal fluid of all participants, researchers found that compared to the neurologically healthy individuals or players whose post-concussive syndrome symptoms lasted for less than a year, players who had symptoms that lasted for more than year had higher levels of proteins called Neurofilament Light (NF-L) proteins — found in the white matter of the brain — suggesting injury to areas that contain nerve fibers connecting various structures within the brain.
NF-L proteins were also higher in players who reported having had more concussions and those who had more severe post-concussion symptoms.
Researchers also found that players with post-concussion syndrome had lower levels of amyloid-beta in their spinal fluid. Amyloid-beta is protein that can clump together to form plaques that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The lower levels found in the study suggests amyloid is being deposited in the brain, as is the case in Alzheimer’s disease.
“These findings could inform decisions about whether to continue to play or not,” Dr. Michael DiGeorgia, director of the Neurocritical Care Center at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, told ABC News. DiGeorgia was not involved in this study.
“It could affect decisions around post-concussion syndrome management. If you have higher levels of NF-L proteins or low levels of amyloid, you may be on a trajectory toward more serious neurologic illness. The second or third concussion should be taken even more seriously,” DiGeorgia said.