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Simple Blood Test System Detects Brain Injuries

Nerve cells illustration


21 November 2017. An engineering team at Purdue University designed a system that detects indicators of traumatic brain injuries in lab tests with one or two drops of blood. The system is described in a paper published earlier this month in the journal IEEE Sensors Letters (paid subscription required).

Traumatic brain injury occurs when the head is subjected to sudden violent jolt or an object pierces the skull and damages brain tissue. These injuries can range from mild to severe and cause a number of symptoms from headache and dizziness in mild cases to repeated nausea, seizures, slurred speech, and increased confusion in moderate to severe cases.

Mild traumatic brain injuries, known as concussions, occur in some contact sports, such as American football and rugby, requiring quick diagnosis to help determine if participants should stop playing until their conditions improve. The Purdue Neurotrauma Group that took part in this project studies youth sports injuries and found concussions are often the result of an accumulation of blows to the head, not necessarily a single violent hit. And, as a result of these multiple hits, neurological changes occur that release tell-tale proteins into the blood.

The team led by Purdue mechanical engineering professor Jeffrey Rhoads is seeking a simple, inexpensive lab test to detect traumatic brain injury. The researchers designed their system to detect characteristic protein biomarkers of conditions such as traumatic brain injury in minute amounts of blood, as small as one or two drops. This detection of biomarkers could make it possible to spot a disease in its early stages, when more treatment options are available and to prevent deterioration if the disorder is left untreated.

The researchers designed the system to work as a pipette, a common lab device that transports and delivers measured amounts of fluids. Packed inside each pipette dispenser is a sensor, coated with an antibody to detect the target protein. To increase its sensitivity, the sensor vibrates at a high frequency powered by piezoelectric effects from changes in mechanical force or stress. And because a pipette dispenses multiple samples, the system provides a better analytical tool.

“Detecting biomarkers is like trying to find a handful of needles in a large haystack,” says Rhoads in a university statement. “So we devised a method that divided the large haystack into smaller haystacks. Instead of having a single sensor, it makes more sense to have an array of sensors and do statistical-based detection.”

In their study, Rhoads and colleagues tested blood samples for the protein s100 beta found in glial cells that surround neurons in the brain. In cases of traumatic brain injury, s100 beta concentrations increase markedly in cerebrospinal fluid found in the brain and spinal cord. At these high concentrations, S100 beta proteins can leak through the blood-brain barrier, making them detectable in blood samples. The researchers report their system detects S100 beta proteins in small blood samples at a sensitivity high enough to indicate traumatic brain injury.

The Purdue team designed the pipette system as a platform for simple, inexpensive tests to detect a number of conditions beyond traumatic brain injury, and the university applied for a patent on the technology. The Purdue Neurotrauma Group hopes to use the system to screen entire high school football teams for concussions next fall.

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