Neuroscientist seeks biomarkers to aid concussion diagnosis and help identify recovery

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Athletes are helping a neuroscientist in Australia tackle the problem of concussion in sport head-on with the aim of developing a quick and cheap test to measure brain recovery.

Dr Fatima Nasrallah, with the Queensland Brain Institute, part of the University of Queensland, is using advanced MRI to collect data on mild traumatic brain injuries to give certainty to when an athlete’s brain has fully recovered and it is safe to resume play.

“You may feel fine — recovered from headaches or blurred vision — but your brain takes longer to mend and is still recovering behind the scenes,” Nasrallah says. “If you get another knock during this time, the effects are cumulative and can lead to long-term consequences.

“We can perform an advanced MRI scan to pick up very subtle changes in the brain and then process the data to get a deeper understanding of how the brain recovers from different types of impacts.

“It’s challenging for sporting bodies to make policies and guidelines around concussion when there’s such a huge gap in knowledge.

“By studying a wide variety of impacts, we can build up a picture of how the brain is recovering.”

Nasrallah has had many willing volunteers, from a range of sports, all having a brain scan in the name of science and better athlete welfare.

Dr Fatima Nasrallah examines brain images. Photo: University of Queensland
Dr Fatima Nasrallah examines brain images. Photo: University of Queensland

One such volunteer is former professional Australian Football League player Ed Barlow, who said, as a psychologist, he was increasingly interested in the effects of concussion on the brain.

“I would definitely encourage players to get involved in the study — having the scans was time-consuming but this is a growing area of concern, and we are only just scratching the surface with what we know,” he says.

Nasrallah says the study requires athletes in high-contact sports to have a baseline scan at the start of the season, another if they sustain a concussion, and subsequent scans to monitor their recovery.

“Brain scans are costly and take time — we are using them now to gather data, but ultimately we want to develop a quick, cost-effective test that can be used to judge whether someone’s brain has fully recovered.”

Nasrallah is researching changes in biomarkers — molecules in the blood or saliva – when concussion occurs, which she can match to the brain scans.

Her aim is to identify biomarkers specific to the brain that can be easily monitored to distinguish whether there is a brain injury or when the brain has fully recovered.

“There is now evidence to show that repetitive injury causes long-term consequences with the developing brain especially vulnerable, so it is essential that we have all the information possible to set guidelines to protect our players in both professional and local sports,” she said.

People can donate to support this research here. To express interest in volunteering, people should visit this site

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