In the second quarter of an NFL game on Thursday night, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco slid to gain a first down. The 233lb Miami Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso flew into him, ploughing shoulder-first into his head.
Such was the force of the hit, Flacco’s helmet flew off. He walked from the field but he was dazed and bleeding from one ear. There was little doubt he had suffered a concussion.
It was an extreme example of the brutal reality of football. Many head injuries caused by the game, however, are harder to detect, the product of collisions repeated over time. Some researchers think a blood test may soon be one way of detecting such problems.
“At this point there are probably as many as 20 to 25 incredibly insightful biomarkers for brain health,” said Kevin Hrusovsky, chief executive of Quanterix, a startup that is one of a handful of companies seeking to develop standardized blood tests to detect concussions.
“We are hopeful we will be able to transform brain health in the way we’ve transformed cardiac health and even cancer health.”
Researchers at Quanterix and other companies hope blood tests will soon look for evidence of Alzheimer’s or dementia, much as standard cholesterol tests now help to assess heart problems.
“I think about [such tests] every minute of every day,” said Robert Stern, a researcher at Boston University who co-authored a landmark study that found the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of 110 of 111 dead NFL players.
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