The Tau of Concussion Recovery

A newly discovered blood protein may save many athletes from serious brain injury.

The subject of concussions among athletes—particularly football players with the NFL and colleges—has been a highly controversial one for well over a decade. The high-impact sport has been known to lead to a wide range of injuries, including injuries to the skull and potentially the brain. Now, thanks to a new study out of the National Institute of Nursing Research, there may be a new, more effective way to identify athletes who need more time to recover from concussions before returning to competitive play.

The NINR collected 632 college-level athletes, including basketball, hockey, football, lacrosse, and soccer players. The players underwent cognitive testing and had their blood analyzed to establish the baseline. Over the competitive season, the researchers followed the students’ performance on the field, as well as monitoring them for any sign of a concussion. 43 of the players developed concussions during the course of the research.

The researchers drew blood samples from the concussed athletes at the 6-hour, 24-hour, 72-hour, and 7-day mark after the concussion. The blood samples were compared not only to the samples taken at baseline testing but also against the blood samples of 37 non-concussed athletes and 21 non-athletes.

The testing discovered that the concussed athletes had higher levels of tau, a blood protein. However, here’s the kicker: tau levels rose significantly among the athletes who needed more than the standard 10 days of recovery time. The athletes with minor concussions had lower tau levels than the athletes who received more severe concussions.

The discovery of this blood protein and its relation to concussions may provide sports doctors with a simple way to diagnose the severity of a concussion. Athletes, trainers, and team physicians will be able to draw blood and measure it for tau proteins. If the levels of tau are significantly higher, it will give a clear diagnosis of the concussion. By extension, this may help to prevent players from returning to competition before their concussions are fully healed.

The science hasn’t yet been fully refined. Further research will be needed in order to examine other protein biomarkers as well as examine other physical effects of concussions. But this blood protein biomarker could provide a highly efficient way for sports physicians to identify players that need more time to heal. In the long run, it could save a lot of athletes from serious brain injury.


Gill, Jessica, Kian Merchant-Borna, Andreas Jeromin, Whitney Livingston, and Jeffrey Bazarian. “Acute plasma tau relates to prolonged return to play after concussion.” Neurology (2017): 10-1212.

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