Directions for teachers: After your students read “Concussion leaves clues in the blood,” ask them to answer the following questions. 

1. What is a concussion and how is it typically diagnosed?

A concussion is a brain injury that results from a knock to the head. That knock can come from a fall, a car accident or while playing sports, for example. Concussions are diagnosed by assessing physical symptoms including headache, nausea, dizziness, confusion and loss of consciousness.

2. Why is the current method for diagnosing concussions not always reliable?

Diagnosing concussions can be tricky because some physical symptoms, such as a headache, may not always be a sign of brain injury.

3. How many sports-related concussions are reported by college athletes in the United States each year?

Estimates suggest 10,560 sports-related concussions are reported annually.

4. What are biomarkers and how do scientists hope to use them in concussion diagnoses? Could biomarkers replace current concussion diagnostic methods?

Biomarkers are chemical signals that may indicate a medical state, such as a concussion. Scientists hope to find biomarkers for concussion in the blood and use them alongside symptoms to improve diagnosis.

5. What did the research study described in the article find? What data supported that result?

The study found that athletes had higher blood levels of three proteins after a concussion than before the injury — a clue that those proteins may be linked to concussion. Scientists compared blood samples taken from nearly 300 college athletes before and after the athletes sustained a concussion. The study also looked at protein levels of athletes who didn’t have concussions and athletes who didn’t play contact sports.

6. Why did scientists measure blood protein levels of athletes that didn’t have concussions? 

Non-concussed athletes served as the control groups in the study. If the protein levels for this group had shown a large variability, it would have called into question the association between proteins and concussion.

7. What potential concussion biomarkers did the scientists find? What do the biomarkers have in common?

Scientists found three biomarker candidates: Glial fibrillary acidic protein, Ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase-L1 and tau. All three proteins are related to injury or damage in certain types of brain cells.

8. Were there any issues, limitations or gaps in the study? Are the biomarkers ready to be used to diagnose concussions? Explain.

The biomarker candidates are not yet ready for use by doctors. Scientists still need to figure out how consistently the proteins are linked to concussions, and to see how the proteins vary in different groups of people. Most of the athletes in the study were male, for example.

9.  Can you think of a next step for scientists?

As a next step, scientists could replicate the study with female college athletes, who have a higher rate of concussion than male athletes and can experience more severe symptoms, to see if the candidate biomarkers consistently show up in women too.