WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- Researchers have discovered a link between a brain protein and the recovery time of athletes suffering from sports-related concussions.
More than 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur annually in the United States, but there are no completely objective tools to confirm when an athlete is ready to play again.
"Keeping athletes safer from long-term consequences of concussions is important to players, coaches, parents and fans," National Institute of Nursing Research Director Patricia A. Grady said in a National Institutes of Health release. "In the future, this research may help to develop a reliable and fast clinical lab test that can identify athletes at higher risk for chronic post-concussion symptoms."
Accurately measuring the levels of tau, a brain protein implicated in the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer's disease, could help doctors prevent athletes from returning to action too soon and risking further neurological injury.
The findings were published in Jan. 6 issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The research was conducted by a team of scientists and doctors led by Dr. Jessica Gill of the NINR at the NIH and Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian of the University of Rochester Medical Center.
"This study suggests that tau may be a useful biomarker for identifying athletes who may take longer to recover after a concussion," said Bazarian, professor of Emergency Medicine and Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at URMC who treats patients at the UR Medicine Sports Concussion Clinic. "Athletes are typically eager to get back to play as soon as possible and may tell doctors that they're better even when they're not. Tau is an unbiased measurement that can't be gamed; athletes can't fake it. It may be that tau combined with current clinical assessments could help us make more informed return-to-play decisions and prevent players from going back to a contact sport when their brains are still healing."
The research team evaluated changes in tau in 46 Division I and III college athletes at the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, all of whom had experienced a concussion. The athletes were selected from a sample of athletes who underwent plasma sampling and cognitive testing before their sports seasons between 2009 and 2014.
The athletes also took blood samples after their concussion using an ultra-sensitive technology used to detect single protein molecules.
Athletes who needed a longer amount of concussion recovery time before returning to play -- more than 10 days post-concussion -- had higher overall tau concentrations at six, 24 and 72 hours post-concussion compared with athletes who were able to return to play in 10 days or less.
Changes in tau levels occurred in male and female athletes, as well as across the various sports studied: soccer, football, basketball, hockey, and lacrosse athletes.
"Incorporating objective biomarkers like tau into return-to-play decisions could ultimately reduce the neurological risks related to multiple concussions in athletes," said Gill.
The study was funded by the NINR with additional funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.