Publications & Posters

Plasma glial fibrillary acidic protein and neurofilament light chain, but not tau, are biomarkers of sports-related mild traumatic brain injury

Brain Communications | September 7, 2020

Laverse E, Guo T, Zimmerman K, Foiani MS, Velani B, Morrow P, Adejuwon A, Bamford R, Underwood N, George J, Brooke D, O’Brien K, Cross MJ, Kemp SPT, Heslegrave AJ, Hardy J, Sharp DJ, Zetterberg H and Morris HR

Brain Commun. 2020;2:fcaa137



Mild traumatic brain injury is a relatively common event in contact sports and there is increasing interest in the long-term neurocognitive effects. The diagnosis largely relies on symptom reporting and there is a need for objective tools to aid diagnosis and prognosis. There are recent reports that blood biomarkers could potentially help triage patients with suspected injury and normal CT findings. We have measured plasma concentrations of glial and neuronal proteins and explored their potential in the assessment of mild traumatic brain injury in contact sport. We recruited a prospective cohort of active male rugby players, who had pre-season baseline plasma sampling. From this prospective cohort, we recruited 25 players diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury. We sampled post-match rugby players without head injuries as post-match controls. We measured plasma neurofilament light chain, tau and glial fibrillary acidic protein levels using ultrasensitive single molecule array technology. The data were analysed at the group and individual player level. Plasma glial fibrillary acidic protein concentration was significantly increased 1-h post-injury in mild traumatic brain injury cases compared to the non-injured group (P = 0.017). Pairwise comparison also showed that glial fibrillary acidic protein levels were higher in players after a head injury in comparison to their pre-season levels at both 1-h and 3- to 10-day post-injury time points (P = 0.039 and 0.040, respectively). There was also an increase in neurofilament light chain concentration in brain injury cases compared to the pre-season levels within the same individual at both time points (P = 0.023 and 0.002, respectively). Tau was elevated in both the non-injured control group and the 1-h post-injury group compared to pre-season levels (P = 0.007 and 0.015, respectively). Furthermore, receiver operating characteristic analysis showed that glial fibrillary acidic protein and neurofilament light chain can separate head injury cases from control players. The highest diagnostic power was detected when biomarkers were combined in differentiating 1-h post-match control players from 1-h post-head injury players (area under curve 0.90, 95% confidence interval 0.79–1.00, P < 0.0002). The brain astrocytic marker glial fibrillary acidic protein is elevated in blood 1 h after mild traumatic brain injury and in combination with neurofilament light chain displayed the potential as a reliable biomarker for brain injury evaluation. Plasma total tau is elevated following competitive rugby with and without a head injury, perhaps related to peripheral nerve trauma and therefore total tau does not appear to be suitable as a blood biomarker.

This study was performed using the Quanterix HD-1 Analyzer.