A study done in collaboration between UHN's Canadian Concussion Centre and the T.J. Watson IBM Research Center using MRI and advanced statistical methods, shows a difference in brain structure and activity between healthy controls and former athletes. (Photo: iStock).

A study published by UHN's Canadian Concussion Centre (CCC), in partnership with the T.J. Watson IBM Research Center, has shown promise in discovering a potential measure to detect changes in brain structure and activity caused by traumatic brain injury.

The research, published this month in Communications Medicine, examines neurofilament light chain (NfL), a protein that is released into the blood (serum) when there is injury to the central nervous system (CNS) or neurodegeneration starts to occur. However, little is known about how levels of this biomarker – a measure that captures changes in a cell – relate to brain structure or activity.

"It's well known that traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions, can't be diagnosed using existing tools such as CT scans, or other imaging tools, on their own – there is nothing you can really see with the naked eye," says Dr. Carmela Tartaglia, clinician-scientist, CCC and a co-author of the study. "So we need to look at alternatives, such as these biomarkers, that could potentially indicate that a person suffered changes to their brain as a result of multiple concussions."

Using data obtained with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and advanced statistical methods, the research team compared brain activity and structure in healthy people with that of former athletes with a history of multiple concussions to determine whether these can predict NfL levels in the blood.

The analysis showed a difference in the relationship between novel MRI brain measures, age, serum NfL levels and behavioural changes between the former contact sports athletes and healthy control groups. Though more research is needed, these findings indicate that a complex relationship exists between these measures, and that this kind of relationship may also be useful in understanding other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Additionally, the research demonstrates how important collaboration is to furthering the understanding of concussions and the brain overall.

"The paper highlights a novel measure in MRI that was really only found because of this collaboration – the CCC had the clinical data, and IBM had the machine learning (AI) expertise," Dr. Tartaglia explains.

"These kinds of partnerships are critical as they may lead to novel biomarkers of concussion and other brain diseases."

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