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Blood test may improve traumatic brain injury diagnosis

Emergency room physicians in Louisiana have traditionally faced a dilemma in treating patients who have experienced traumatic brain injuries. The symptoms of these injuries can vary from very mild to very severe. Doctors check for bleeding in a patient’s brain, which can be detected in CT scans. Based on the results of a CT scan and a review of the patient’s symptoms, doctors decide whether to provide additional treatment or to send the patient home to resume normal activities.

The symptoms of a traumatic brain injury are generally caused by damage to the brain cells. Although the CT scan can detect bleeding in the brain, it does not detect damage to brain cells. A patient may show no bleeding in the brain and be sent home only to continue to experience severe symptoms due to damaged brain cells. Until now, physicians had no solution to this diagnostic dilemma.

Recently, physicians at John Hopkins University discovered that a protein known as BDNF, if taken within 24 hours of the injury, can predict the severity of a traumatic brain injury as well as the patient’s likely prognosis. Low levels of BDNF were found to be associated with severe symptoms, while higher BDNF levels were found in patients with less severe injuries or no injuries at all.

Physicians do not know why patients with brain injuries have lower levels of BDNF or whether increasing BDNF levels through exercise or ingesting omega-3 fatty acids could be used to improve treatment of a TBI. With further success, in time, administering BDNF may become the standard of care in treating TBI patients, which may reduce the symptoms and need for therapy and long-term care that are now required in some cases. If BDNF becomes part of the standard of care, a physician’s failure to administer it to a patient with a traumatic brain injury may constitute medical negligence if the patient is harmed as a result.

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