Blood tests could track the recovery of concussed football players.

Australian researchers have discovered that monitoring levels of specific proteins in the blood could provide a method to track the recovery of football players following concussions. 

This finding stems from a study that identified two key proteins, glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) and neurofilament light (NfL), which increase significantly after a concussion, particularly when there is a loss of consciousness.

The research, conducted by a cohort of 81 Australian football players, revealed that GFAP levels rise considerably within 24 hours of a concussion. 

In contrast, NfL levels show a delayed increase but remain elevated for up to 12 weeks. 

The study noted that players with higher levels of these proteins experienced longer recovery times and were more likely to have lost consciousness during the concussion event.

“In this cohort study of 81 individuals with sport-related concussion, increases in GFAP and NfL levels were substantial and persisted for at least 4 weeks,” the paper states. 

“Individuals in these extreme biomarker subgroups were more likely to have experienced loss of consciousness (LOC) and longer to return to training times.”

The study, conducted between April 2021 and September 2022 through the Victorian Amateur Football Association in Melbourne, aimed to examine the serum levels of GFAP and NfL in athletes experiencing sport-related concussions (SRC). Data analysis continued until March 2024.

Results indicated that compared to control participants, those with SRC showed significantly higher GFAP levels at 24 hours and 4 weeks post-concussion. NfL levels were elevated from 1 to 12 weeks. 

Further analysis identified distinct subgroups among the concussed players, with some showing prolonged increases in protein levels, correlating with extended recovery times.

“The findings of this study suggest the utility of serial measurements of GFAP and NfL to track neurobiologic recovery, with the association between LOC and extended biomarker elevations supporting the use of LOC for informing more conservative return-to-play timelines,” the researchers say.

The study highlights the potential for blood tests to serve as a reliable tool for monitoring recovery in concussed athletes, possibly leading to more personalised and effective management of return-to-play decisions. 

While the experts say further investigation is needed, the correlation between prolonged biomarker elevations and loss of consciousness suggests that a more cautious approach to return-to-play timelines may be warranted for athletes exhibiting these clinical features.

The full study is accessible here.