Concussions are mysterious to many of us but medical science is getting better at understanding how to test, treat, and aid recovery from them. Here are three recent breakthroughs you should know about – two of them from right here in Canada.

New blood test for concussions

A Canadian team of researchers have made a major discovery in how to identify and diagnose patients with a concussion. The answer may be in your blood. The team has found a blood test that they claim has a 90 per cent rate of accuracy.

Currently, concussions are diagnosed by medical imaging technology or a complex list of observations and physical tests. A blood test, though, would simplify the process and enable medical professionals to diagnose and treat concussions faster.

The blood test measures metabolite levels in the blood. These leave chemical fingerprints that can tell what’s happening in the brain. While it’s not the first time researchers have looked to blood tests to try and diagnose concussions, this is one of the most promising findings for early detection.

Blood protein a measure of severity

If you’ve ever had a concussion, you know it can be both a painful and confusing experience with a long and unpredictable recovery ahead. Researchers in New York State have discovered that, once again, our blood can help determine the severity of the concussion with a view to predicting recovery time.

In a study of concussed athletes, they discovered that a higher level of the brain protein tau in the blood can lead to a longer recovery period. Tau is a protein found in the human body and is linked to brain cell damage. Higher levels in the blood indicate a more severe injury.

In the test group, the athletes with high levels took longer than 10 days to return to play while those with less got back sooner. While more research is needed, the results have researchers hopeful that measuring tau proteins in the blood can help with diagnosing the severity of a concussion and predicting a patient’s recovery time.

Light exercise can help recovery in kids

Another Canadian team has found light exercise may help some concussed kids recover faster. Resting and slowing down have been common treatments for concussions, but researchers in Ottawa have found that light physical activity can help mend some young brains.

Looking at over 3000 youngsters ages 5 to 18 who were treated for concussions, the team found that those who did some light physical activity in the first week after their injury saw faster improvements than those who did not. For those restricted to bed rest, nearly half (44%) continued to show symptoms a month later, while a quarter of those who were out doing light walks, swimming, or stationary cycling reported fewer lingering symptoms in the same time frame.

Certainly, if a child has suffered a concussion as a result of a sporting activity, he or she should be pulled from play, but it is promising to see the positive impact of light exercise on their recovery.

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Our children are walking and cycling to school, and for some it is the first time. Vancouver Police are reminding motorists to slow down and pay attention in school zones. According to The Province, police and speed watch volunteers are strictly enforcing the 30-km/h speed limit in school zones between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

According to ICBC, 30 children aged five to eighteen are killed and 5,100 injured in 14,700 crashes every year in BC.

Here are some back to school traffic safety tips for motorists

This Christmas, SONY pictures will release a film titled Concussion, a drama capturing the struggles Dr. Bennett Omalu endured after discovering a pattern of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in autopsies of former professional football players.

CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease that results in a wide range of devastating symptoms including depression, Parkinsonism, dementia, and suicidal thoughts or actions. Dr. Omalu brought this information to the National Football League in 2003 but, they simply refused to listen.

The NFL has done their best since to refute the science and prevent this information from getting to the general public, future players and concerned parents. The NFL and former players are currently settling a class-action concussion lawsuit. A federal judge is resolving thousands of NFL player concussion lawsuits based on a plan that will cost the NFL up to $1 billion over 65 years. The suit alleges the NFL didn’t do enough to warn players about the risks of brain damage.

Ann McKee is the woman at the forefront of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research.  She is a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine and director of Boston University’s CTE Center.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes who have endured repetitive head trauma. Because of the NFL concussion lawsuit, CTE is most often associated with football players, but the disease also affects soccer, hockey, rugby and baseball players.

McKee’s research on CTE is funded by several organizations including the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the National Football League.

McKee recently discussed her work on CTE in an interview with Boston University. “I looked at the slide and it was like ‘Oh my God! This is so amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this’” she recalls on the first time she saw CTE. In McKee’s examination of professional boxer Peter Pender’s brain in 2003, she discovered tangles of protein clustered around blood vessels called tau, the first indicator of CTE.

McKee also discusses the 240 brains in the CTE Center’s bank, brain injury in kids’ sports, and what shocks her most about CTE. Read the full interview on BU’s Research.

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Patrick Grange from Albuquerque, New Mexico has become the first soccer player to be diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Grange took up the sport at age three and went on to play in college and in top amateur leagues.

Grange died in April 2012 from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). CTE was confirmed by Boston University’s Ann McKee in a post-mortem examination of Grange’s brain.

With an estimated 265 million players worldwide, soccer is the world’s most popular sport.

Research led by Canadian concussion specialist Dr. Paul Echlin proves that all it takes is one concussion to alter the brains of young athletes.

Working in collaboration with neuroscientists around the world, Echlin analyzed the brains of 45 male and female hockey players aged 19-26. MRI imaging revealed microscopic changes that could be linked to cognitive deficits and long-term brain disease like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Part I of the study focused on changes in the brain immediately following a concussion. Eleven of the 45 hockey players suffered concussions throughout the season.
MRI scans revealed microbleeding in all 11 concussed brains.

Part II examined the brain’s white matter three days post-injury (white matter transmits signals from one part of the brain to another). Scans revealed inflammation in the brain that constricted the space between white matter cells.

Part III compared MRI scans at the end of the players’ season to original baseline scans. All showed varying levels of microscopic change in both injured and uninjured brains. The microscopic change “could be the first sign of long-term pathologies,” said Martha Shenton of Harvard Medical School.

Prevention is Key

Some believe improved safety gear will play an important role in brain injury prevention – equipment like concussion-reducing helmets that are starting to hit store shelves.

But Echlin believes brain injury prevention must happen at the social level. “It is time to consider a cultural shift to address the prevention and treatment of [concussion] that is occurring at epidemic proportions,” says Echlin.

Dr. Michael Cusimano, neurosurgeon at a Level 1 trauma centre in Toronto, says we need to find new ways to keep kids in sport while keeping them as safe as possible. He believes professional leagues like the NHL must set the tone. “Whatever is done at the professional level in sports is emulated almost immediately by children who idolize their heroes. NHL players also have to be aware of this and set a better example for our kids,” says Cusimano.

Cusimano also believes that parents must teach kids what is and is not acceptable in sport. Do you shout words of encouragement when a fight breaks out on the ice? Do your words and body language show your excitement? This response to violence tells kids that fighting in sports is okay. It’s time to send our kids a new message.

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Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the degenerative brain disease diagnosed in an increasing number of ex-NFL football players. It’s linked to depression and dementia. There is no cure.

Until now, CTE has only been diagnosed in post-mortem autopsies. A diagnosis is made when an examination of the brain reveals a buildup of an abnormal protein call tau. Tau strangles brain cells in areas that control memory, emotions and other functions.

But ESPN reports that an expert research team has come up with new brain scan technology that can diagnose CTE in living patients.