November 1, 2022
In just 15 minutes, a small, handheld blood test can tell doctors whether a patient has likely suffered a concussion or traumatic brain injury — no brain scan required.
After more than a decade of research, the Abbott Laboratories test is being used for the first time in a real-world setting to evaluate patients at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. Doctors using the test say it’s better at evaluating concussions than the brain scans that have been widely used for the last 30 years.
Although millions of Americans have experienced traumatic brain injuries, many are misdiagnosed. Patients suspected of having a concussion or internal bleeding have typically needed to get a computed tomography scan, more commonly known as a CT or CAT scan, a type of test that’s costly, time-intensive, and can expose patients to low levels of radiation.
Critically, CT scans often miss concussions, an oversight that can lead to lifelong consequences if left unchecked, according to experts. Abbott’s test can pick up on brain abnormalities that the scans can’t see.
That test, called the i-STAT TBI Plasma test, was greenlit by the Food and Drug Administration in 2021 to rule out the need for a CT scan when evaluating mild traumatic brain injuries. All that’s needed is a small blood sample, from which plasma is extracted and applied to a test cartridge. The test then measures specific biomarkers — in this case, elevated levels of two distinct proteins made by brain cells are cause for concern. When a head injury occurs, those proteins can leak out of the protective barrier that covers the central nervous systems and enter the bloodstream. Measuring that leakage allows doctors to see that there’s been some sort of disruption to the blood-brain barrier, which can indicate a concussion or traumatic brain injury, said Jason Wilson, a physician who specializes in emergency medicine at Tampa General.
“We definitely think it’s the right thing for our patients and our patient population to get them the best care possible,” Wilson said in an interview. Tampa General, he said, is where people come for different types of emergency injuries like blunt force trauma. A large percent of the hospital’s emergency room patients are there for various forms of head injuries, Wilson said.
Although the concussions and brain injuries that make headlines are usually those suffered by professional athletes, like those in theNational Football League, the majority of injuries happen in the workplace or automobile accidents, said Wilson. Sports-related injuries do account for a significant number of concussions in kids and teens. From 2001 to 2018, roughly 3.8 million adolescents under the age of 18 visited the emergency department for brain injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of those visits were associated with contact sports, the study says.
Though Abbott’s test is not yet ready to be used on the sidelines of sporting events, the ultimate goal for Abbott is for every hospital, urgent care clinic, ambulance, school and sporting event to have a portable test available. The company is also working on research that will help doctors know the severity of a concussion or brain injury, for both adults and kids, to aid in diagnoses.
Abbott worked with the Department of Defense to develop the test, which supported development with millions of dollars in funding. More than 450,000 US service members were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from 2000 to 2021, according to the CDC. It’s an area the DOD is “very concerned about,” said Beth McQuiston, a neurologist and chief medical officer for Abbott’s diagnostic business.
“As a neurologist and someone that’s been working on this for decades, this is just such a pivotal moment,” McQuiston said in an interview. “Being able to have an objective way to evaluate patients is everything.”