Concussions can be tricky to diagnose. Symptoms of head injuries caused by a hard blow or violent shaking can be easy to spot, but often they’re not.
The patient might have ringing in the ears, double vision or headaches. Then again, perhaps not.
There is no definitive diagnostic test and concussions don’t show up on most imaging tests. In the heat of competition, athletes may not want to hear they have a concussion, lest they be forced to miss out on the action.
But Boston Children’s Hospital scientists have made progress on what may become a key tool in diagnosing the injury: “biomarkers” in urine. Such proteins can spot chronic pelvic pain, an enlarged prostate, endometriosis and other maladies.
Markers of physical or biological damage often find their way into the bloodstream — and, ultimately, into our urine.
The researchers attended preseason physicals of athletes at a Boston-area college and froze urine samples. Athletes who had diagnosed concussions then gave another sample within seven days. They gave more samples one, three, six months and one year after the injury.
Eventually, the researchers had enough samples to study the urine profiles of 95 athletes, roughly half of whom had concussions.
Two proteins stood out: IGF-1 and the IGF-binding protein 5. Both proteins plummeted after concussions.
The researchers believe the proteins may be involved in brain injury repair, and thus are not excreted via urine.
The team hopes to expand its study, in hopes of creating a concussion-screening test that makes the question “How many fingers am I holding up?” a charming medical relic, akin to a leather football helmet.