The largest study on brain trauma is happening here in Minnesota

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The University of Minnesota has teamed up with the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) to develop a new standard approach for evaluating and diagnosing traumatic injury to the brain including concussion, according to a statement released Wednesday.

A total of 9,000 trauma patients ranging from children to the elderly and those conscious and in comas will be screened by researchers for the study. At least 1,000 will be enrolled and followed for up to one year.

Currently, it is standard for doctors to assess brain trauma by testing a patient's physical abilities to speak, follow directions and move their eyes and limbs, sometimes accompanied by a CT or MRI scan, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In this study, researchers will use eye tracking and blood tests in addition to MRIs to assess patients' brain injuries.

“Imaging tells us what the brain looks like, eye tracking tells us how well it’s working and blood-based biomarkers can tell us the nature of the damage,” explained Thomas Bergman, M.D. in the statement.

Bergman is the Chief of Neurosurgery at HCMC and a co-investigator on the study.

“When we put all of this information together," he said, "we will have a better understanding about brain injury that will help us treat patients now and in the future."

Eye tracking

Using new technology, patients will watch 220-second music videos – ranging from rapper K'Naan to the animated Puss in Boots from Shrek – while a high-frequency camera maps the positions of their pupils. By comparing the positions of the pupils over time and measuring each eye's movement, researchers are able to distinguish if the brain is in fact damaged.

Neurosurgeon Uzma Samadani is the Chair for Traumatic Brain Injury Research at HCMC and an associate professor at the U of M, making her one of the lead investigators in the study. She has previously studied patients using eye tracking technology and published research on the topic.

"Eye tracking tells us how well the brain is working regardless of how it looks, and represents the beginning of a solution to this problem," said Samadani in a HCMC article. "It is non-invasive, inexpensive and extremely quick. Testing does not require reading nor language skills which makes it useful for multiple patient populations.”

Blood tests

Abbott Laboratories, an international healthcare company and partner in the study, is working on a test to detect specific proteins in the blood that indicate brain injury. The test will be performed on Abbott's i-STAT, a handheld, portable device that can be used at a patient's side and yield blood test results within minutes.

Brain trauma in the news

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.7 million people visit the emergency room, are hospitalized or die from traumatic brain injury in the United States each year. For more facts on traumatic brain injury in the U.S., click here.

A rise in concussions from youth sports has sparked a national dialogue regarding safety in recent years.

Last November, two Minnesota doctors called for a removal of football from public schools because of the high rate of concussions among football players, said the Star Tribune.

In a 2014 study, about one in every 100 student athletes from 36 metro-area schools reported a concussion, according to the Pioneer Press. From that data, experts estimate that statewide there were about 3,000 concussions, or an average of 22 per high school.

After a California lawsuit charged FIFA and U.S. Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Organization with negligence for not addressing concussions, the U.S. Soccer Federation released new guidelines in November that include a ban on children under 10 from heading the ball, reported NBC.

Retired U.S. women's soccer player Brandy Chastain, who has argued against heading in youth soccer, announced last week that she is donating her brain to Boston University for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) research, said the New York Times. CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes caused by repetitive brain trauma, such as heading the ball.

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