Blood sample could reveal severity of head trauma

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With the help of metabolomics – a way of using chemical analysis to extract information about thousands of small molecules – researchers have identified biomarkers that can be linked to traumatic brain injury.
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Scientists have identified biomarkers in the blood that indicate how serious head trauma is, paving the way for a simple blood sample to diagnose patients with traumatic brain injury.

More than 140 million people around the world are living with symptoms of head trauma. Those affected are primarily under the age of 40, with falls, road traffic accidents and assault the most common causes of traumatic brain injury.

At the Örebro University in Sweden, researchers have worked on a method to diagnose head trauma that does not require a surgical procedure. They have used blood samples collected by researchers, all part of an EU project, in 20 European countries – the largest study of its kind.

“Having an accident early in life can have major consequences. Better and safer diagnosis is therefore vital,” said Matej Orešič, professor of medicine at Örebro University in Sweden. “It may be that in some cases, even a milder concussion can cause long-term and serious trauma. And we’ll be able to see that by taking a blood sample.”

With the help of metabolomics – a way of using chemical analysis to extract information about thousands of small molecules – the Örebro researchers have identified biomarkers that can be linked to traumatic brain injury. Their work has been published in Nature Communications.

András Büki, professor of medicine at Örebro University, said the innovation allowed injuries to be categorised more clearly. “It’s cost-effective, not to mention simpler and safer for the patient,” he said.

Traumatic brain injury is divided into three categories, from mild to severe, and there are no reliable methods to rule out acute brain injury.

“To us, the acute phase is the most critical, and with the help of these biomarkers, we can assess how severe the injury is – and what’s more, we can arrive at a prognosis of the outcome for the patient going forward,” said Büki, previously responsible for organising neuro-surgical care for patients in the Pecs region, with a population of one million, in Hungary.

People sustaining milder brain injury often experience tiredness, memory loss and problems with their balance even long after the accident. This applies not least to athletes who often sustain repeated concussions, and these may have major consequences.

“Currently, we have no tools for a straightforward assessment of when an athlete can go back to training or competing following a concussion. Not everyone can get an MRI scan – but a blood sample would enable us to increase testing capacity,” Büki said.

“If we look at heart patients, there are significantly more tools available with which to assess them. We hope that we’re now on a path towards better treatment – and research – also for neuro patients.”

The researchers are associated with various institutions in Sweden, Finland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Hungary, USA, and the UK.

Ilias Thomas, Alex M. Dickens, Jussi P. Posti, Endre Czeiter, Daniel Duberg, Tim Sinioja, Matilda Kråkström, Isabel R. A. Retel Helmrich, Kevin K. W. Wang, Andrew I. R. Maas, Ewout W. Steyerberg, David K. Menon, Olli Tenovuo, Tuulia Hyötyläinen, András Büki, and Matej Orešič. Serum metabolome associated with severity of acute traumatic brain injury. Nat Commun 13, 2545 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-30227-5

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