Preliminary reports on as-yet unpublished Army research have offered a tantalizing look at what may be in the future for the diagnosis of mild to moderate brain injury.
Unlike those who suffer more severe concussions, mild brain injury victims may have no immediate outward symptoms of the damage their brains have sustained -- even though this damage could put them at greater risk of bigger problems later.
For this reason, all too often, mild concussions go undetected, exposing the person to much more serious brain damage if they suffer a second concussion before the first one is fully healed.
Most concussions happen to children younger than 4 and to teenagers.
Niki Popyer suffered seven concussions before the age of 14, playing basketball. Now she suffers from dizziness, memory loss and difficulty concentrating.
"I can't go to the movies. I can't ride a train or do anything that could potentially get hit," she said.
And last year, actress Natasha Richardson died of a brain hemorrhage after what at first seemed to be a minor fall on a Canadian ski slope.
Doctors say the idea that they could one day have a test that could quickly warn of the potential for brain damage in the absence of neurological signs is exciting. Brain injury experts, however, said there's still a lot of work to be done to validate and develop a reliable test that will be easy for those in the field -- such as football coaches and ski resort managers -- to use.
Lead by Banyan Biomarkers, researchers drew and tested the blood of 34 people taken to the hospital for head injuries and then diagnosed with mild concussions at a trauma unit.
The blood tests showed the presence of certain proteins -- biomarkers -- that do not normally show up in the blood of uninjured people. The theory is that the concussive jolt to the brain unleashes these proteins in the bloodstream.
"We have found very unique, specific proteins that are released into the bloodstream when the brain cells are injured," said Army Col. Dallas Hack, M.D., the director of the Combat Casualty Care Research Program at Fort Detrick, Md.
"Some of those are actually high enough in concentration, they get across into the bloodstream. ... We have been able to, in a series of patients, identify adequate quantities of two of these [proteins] that we can measure them up," Hack said.
If, in fact, the biomarkers found in the subjects' blood turns out to be correlated with their brain injuries, it would be the first suggestion that a blood test to test for brain injury in humans could be a reality. Hack already calls the finding a major breakthrough for researchers who've been seeking for 10 years a blood test that might signal a concussion.
"We've done a lot of work in animals and this is confirmation in people that this actually works," he said. "We're quite certain this will work."
Hack said that the Army has already ordered prototypes of handheld devices that would involve a pin prick to get similar information and could be used in the field.