New traumatic brain injury test is ‘game-changing,’ concussion experts say

There are millions of TBI hospitalizations and deaths each year.

January 12, 2021, 3:09 AM

• 7 min read

In a world first, a newly authorized handheld device will allow doctors to detect traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in under 15 minutes, potentially saving lives by dramatically shortening the time it takes to properly diagnose the issue.

The device is made by Abbott, a medical device company based in the United States.

“This is a huge milestone that has never been done before — a blood test for the brain,” said Dr. Beth McQuiston, medical director for Abbott’s diagnostic businesses. “Until now, health care providers have needed to rely on subjective measurements for TBIs, but we finally have a more objective tool to help evaluate patients.”

Independent experts interviewed by ABC News agreed that this test for the brain may chart a new era in medical care for patients with TBI.

“I think this is groundbreaking. The first time we are able to assess brain health using a blood test,” said Dr. Frederick Korley, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and a Michigan Concussion Center faculty member.

TBI is a disruption in normal brain function caused by a blow or jolt to the head. A concussion is the mildest form of TBI, but patients may suffer a constellation of physical, cognitive, emotional and sleep symptoms. Some of the most common signs include confusion, headaches, blurry or double vision, dizziness, fatigue, memory loss, difficulties with concentration and insomnia.

TBI is a major cause of death and disability in the U.S. There were 2.87 million TBI-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations and deaths in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Athletes and older people are the most at-risk of TBIs.

Unfortunately, many patients with mild TBI struggle to get an accurate and timely diagnosis, even as they grapple with ongoing symptoms. This ultimately results in delayed treatment.

Doctors often use a series of screening questionnaires, physical examinations and CT scans to take pictures of the brain in order to evaluate TBI. However, experts agree these techniques aren’t perfect and there is no objective way to reliably evaluate TBI.

“One of the most challenging aspects of diagnosing concussion today is there are no objective tests,” said Dr. Farng-Yang Foo, a neurologist at NYU Langone Health’s Concussion Center. “Currently, much of the diagnosis is by self-report of the patient, what the patient tells us. This makes it hard to make a diagnosis.”

Abbott’s new blood test may serve as an objective tool to help doctors triage TBI patients, because it relies on molecular signatures in the blood rather than on murkier clues, such as patient interviews.

The test requires a small blood sample drawn from the arm, from which plasma is extracted and inserted into the handheld instrument.

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