NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Biomarker in Blood May Help Predict Recovery Time for Sports Concussions

Two football players with red jerseys and white helmets line up to snap the ball
NIH researchers found a blood protein that could help with sports-related concussion.

Researchers at NIH have found that the blood protein tau could be an important new clinical biomarker to better identify athletes who need more recovery time before safely returning to play after a sports-related concussion. 

The study, supported by NINR with additional funding from NICHD, was published online in the Jan. 6 issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Despite the millions of sports-related concussions that occur annually in the U.S., there is no reliable blood-based test to predict recovery and an athlete’s readiness to return to play. The new study shows that measuring tau levels could potentially be an unbiased tool to help prevent athletes from returning to action too soon and risking further neurological injury.

“Keeping athletes safer from long-term consequences of concussions is important to players, coaches, parents and fans,” said NINR director Dr. Patricia Grady. “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.”

Athletes who return to play before full recovery are at high risk for long-term symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and cognitive deficits with subsequent concussions. About half of college athletes see their post-concussive symptoms resolve within 10 days, but in others, the symptoms become chronic.

Tau is also connected to development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and is a marker of neuronal injury following severe traumatic brain injuries.

In the study, led by NIH Lasker clinical research scholar Dr. Jessica Gill, chief of the NINR brain injury unit, researchers evaluated changes in tau following a sports-related concussion in male and female collegiate athletes to determine if higher levels of tau relate to longer recovery durations.

“Incorporating objective biomarkers like tau into return-to-play decisions could ultimately reduce the neurological risks related to multiple concussions in athletes,” Gill said.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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