Medical researchers in London, Ont. say they've discovered a new blood test that has a 90 per cent accuracy rate to correctly identify whether someone has had a concussion.
"It's kind of been the Holy Grail in traumatic brain injury research" - Dr. Douglas Fraser, a physician in Pediatric Critical Care Unit at Children's Hospital, London Health Sciences Centre
Until now, medical experts have had to rely on medical imaging technology, which can't always detect signs of a concussion, or a complex list of observable physiological signs that only become apparent through thorough physical testing.
The discovery that a single drop of human blood can tell scientists whether a concussion is present could mark a dramatic shift in the way doctors diagnose traumatic brain injury.
"For the last 10 years or so it's kind of been the Holy Grail in traumatic brain injury research," said Dr. Douglas Fraser, a physician in Pediatric Critical Care Unit at Children's Hospital, London Health Sciences Centre and the lead researcher on the project.
The blood test discovered by Dr. Fraser and his colleagues isn't the first to be developed, but it is the first that can detect the presence of a concussion with 90 per cent accuracy.
The blood test focuses on the levels of metabolites in the blood, a waste product generated by the body, that acts as a set of chemical fingerprints.
"By measuring all of these things it gives you a very good idea of what's going on in the body at any given time, including an injury," Fraser said.
Until now, doctors only ever looked at one or two molecules at a time, which wasn't very accurate. So Dr. Fraser said he and his team took a different approach.
90 per cent accuracy
"We were very pleasantly surprised to find out that the pattern of change for 174 metabolites was really quite dramatic after an injury," he said.
"It got to be quite easy to separate who had had an injury and who had not based on those patterns."
So easy in fact, Dr. Fraser said he and his team could determine the presence of a concussion with startling accuracy that ranged from 95 per cent at its highest to 90 per cent at its lowest, far beyond what's considered acceptable in the medical community.
"We tend to say if it's 70 per cent accurate it's a pretty good test," he said.
"Given how robust our results are, there's a lot of commercial interest," Dr. Fraser said, noting the technology is only in its infancy and still involves a cumbersome laboratory setting in order to get a proper diagnosis.
However, he hopes with some refinement and automation of the testing process, the test could be done outside the laboratory with a machine that would be small and light enough to take anywhere.
"This is something with today's technology would be the size of a toaster and could sit on a bench somewhere. This is something that could be in an emergency room, in an athletic locker, it could be on the front lines of a military conflict."
Right now the cost of the test is about $100, but in time, the cost could get as low as $40, which would put it in the same price range as most other blood tests.
That way, Dr. Fraser said concussions won't be so evasive for medical experts trying to diagnose them, predict their severity and even trying to plot a patient's recovery.
"To have a test that's readily available and accurate can certainly help guide outcomes."