An imaging technique that measures blood flow in the brain could give doctors the first objective tool for treating athletes with concussions, Albuquerque researchers found in a new study.
The study of college football players found that certain parts of the brain received reduced blood flow in the days and weeks after a concussion injury, measurable by magnetic resonance imaging.
The findings suggest that MRI could help take some of the guesswork out of diagnosing and treating concussions, said Timothy Meier, a researcher at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque.
Meier co-authored the study published online this week in JAMA Neurology. The Mind Research Network is owned by Lovelace Biomedical and Environmental Research Institute in Albuquerque.
“Right now, all clinical management of concussions is based pretty much entirely on clinical judgment,” he said.
Doctors can use tests that measure factors such as balance, memory and cognitive skills to decide how long an athlete should remain off the field, he said. Otherwise, doctor rely on athletes themselves to report problems such as headaches, depression and dizziness.
“By and large, it just depends on a general clinical exam, plus self-reporting by the athletes,” Meier said.
“So there’s really a need to develop objective physiological-based markers” to help doctors diagnose concussions and decide how long a player should remain off the field, he said.
The University of New Mexico has requested a three-year, $3 million appropriation this year to pay for a “brain safe” program that would include MRI scans and other assessments for UNM football, volleyball, soccer, basketball and cheer squad members.
Senate Bill 89 has received a “do-pass” recommendation from the Senate Finance Committee.
The study recruited 44 college football players in Tulsa, Okla., of whom 17 had concussions and 27 served as a control group. Those with concussions received three neuroimaging tests a day, a week and a month after the injury.
Athletes with concussions showed reduced blood flow a week later to two regions of the brain including the insular cortex, which is associated with perception and motor control.
Reduced blood flow to the insular cortex could explain concussion symptoms such as pain, dizziness and balance problems, Meier said.
Most of the injured athletes returned to normal blood flow after a month, but those with the most severe injuries and symptoms showed reduced blood flow a month later, he said.
The study did not offer reasons for the reduced cerebral blood flow or long-term consequences for athletes.
“Our knowledge of what is happening in the brain following concussion is fairly limited,” he said.