(Updated at 12:30 pm, January 29, 2017 to correct the spelling of Dr. Ojemann's name.)
New research on concussions in young athletes may be the key to better treating or monitoring the injuries.
The study, published in the journal "Neurology," was conducted at Seattle Children’s Hospital. It was indirectly funded by the National Football League, part of the millions of dollars the NFL has spent on concussion research.
Neurologist Jeff Ojemann had a hunch when he began his research in 2014. He suspected that levels of the chemical GABA would be elevated in kids with a concussion.
GABA is a protein that lives in our nerve cells. Ojemann says it works as a sort of inhibitor in the brain. So, while some is necessary to keep your brain from firing out of control, he says too much will cause you to have trouble concentrating.
For the $100,000 study, thousands of patients, ages 14 to 18, who came to Seattle Children's Hospital's Sports Medicine Clinic were screened. The group to be studied was narrowed down to ten young people, both boys and girls, with moderately severe concussions and a control group of ten similarly athletic kids with non-head injuries.
MRI brain scans were done. Ojemann says what he suspected turned out to be true.
“What we found is that in the frontal lobe, which is a key part of the brain for short term memory and for concentration, that the GABA was higher in kids that had a concussion against those that didn’t.”
Ojemann says what they don’t know is if those higher levels are actually part of the healing process. The GABA could be slowing down the brain, so it can heal. He says if that’s the case, GABA could be actually added to the brain to speed the process along.
At any rate, there’s now a new way to monitor whether someone has a concussion or not. Concussions often don't show up on brain scans alone, so being able to use GABA levels to detect one could prove invaluable.
Ojemann says with additional money, researchers could delve further into the question of why GABA levels are higher in young athletes with concussions and find out if the same is true for adults.