June 27, 2018

UCalgary researchers develop a diagnostic tool to test for signs of brain injury

Hand-held sensor a potential game-changer for diagnosing concussions and other head trauma

Concussions cause a variety of symptoms in patients and are often hard to accurately diagnose. This causes worry and frustration to both patients and their families looking for absolute answers about this vexing condition.

Taking the guesswork out of diagnosing concussions and other traumatic brain injuries is the ultimate goal of a new University of Calgary research project, which will provide doctors with a tool to accurately and rapidly measure proteins and small molecules known to indicate an injury is present in the brain. The research is part of the University’s Integrated Concussion Research Program (ICRP).

Using a handheld immunosensor equipped with electrodes capable of detecting key biomarkers, doctors in the future may need only a pinprick of blood to rapidly determine if an athlete or other patient is likely to have suffered a concussion or other brain injuries.

“The way it is diagnosed now is mostly based on questions asked of the patient, as there is no objective measure to test for a concussion,” says Dr. Amir Sanati-Nezhad, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, Schulich School of Engineering, the Canada Research Chair in BioMEMS, and a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), the Centre for Bioengineering Research and Education, and the ICRP.

“With this new method, two hours after you have a suspected injury, you can test the blood using a simple smartphone-sized device.”

Amir Sanati-Nezhad is pictured above, right, with co-author Dr. Chantel Debert.

Tool the work of a team

The planned diagnostic tool is the work of a team of UCalgary engineers and medical researchers. Their latest papers on the project were recently published in the ACS Sensors and Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical journals.

Officially called a “polyethylenimine modified graphene-oxide electrochemical immunosensor,” the device is at least 100 times more sensitive than any other brain injury biomarker method currently being tested.

“Such an immunosensor can address the unmet diagnostic needs in resource-limited clinics, rural health-care setups, emergency vehicles, and in war zones,” reads the paper featured in ACS Sensors.

“It can also be used for priority-based injury diagnosis in clinics, side-line sporting evaluation and in hospitals, providing primary interventions, injury assessment and prognosis.”

Clinical trial next for sensor

A potential game-changer for brain injury-prone patients like athletes, the immunosensor, currently integrated with microfluidic technology to automate the sensing protocol, is set for clinical trials.

The ultimate goal is a cheap, readily available device capable of detecting and monitoring brain injury within a couple hours of trauma.

Co-author Dr. Chantel Debert, MD, physiatrist at Foothills Medical Centre, says the ability to accurately measure a biomarker linked to central nervous system injury will be a great help to doctors in diagnosing and treating brain injuries.

“It would aid in diagnosing and determining outcomes, helping to ensure patients get their injury assessed quickly, and their total recovery monitored accurately,” explains Debert, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the Cumming School of Medicine, adjunct professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and member of the HBI and ICRP.

More accurate diagnosis needed

Debert says a method to rapidly detect changes to brain function by analyzing a small amount of a person’s blood after a concussion or brain injury would revolutionize treatment.

“Currently concussion is diagnosed based on clinical judgment, which is subject to interpretation. There is no objective measure that can diagnosis a concussion or determine the length of recovery,” she says. “We need a more precise and accurate way to detect concussion, as well as a way to predict recovery.”

About the Schulich School of Engineering

The Schulich School of Engineering is committed to the success of our students, to enrich diversity within the school and the engineering profession, and to combine our strengths to produce research that makes a difference in the lives around us. This strategy is called Energizing Engineering Leadership.

About Biomedical Engineering

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives solutions to our most pressing health challenges in disease and injury prevention, diagnosis and treatments. Our biomedical engineering researchers make a significant impact in our communities by extending lives, improving quality of life, promoting independence, and continuously improving the health system.

About Brain and Mental Health research at the University of Calgary

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community. 

About the Integrated Concussion Research Program

The Integrated Concussion Research Program (ICRP) is a university-wide initiative to study concussion, which has brought together experts from the Cumming School of MedicineFaculty of Kinesiology, and Faculty of Arts, with support from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI). The ICRP seeks to be an internationally-recognized centre that drives evidence-based care and improves outcomes for individuals with concussion.

About the Hotchkiss Brain Institute

The Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the University of Calgary consists of more than 140 scientists and clinician-scientists who are dedicated to advancing brain and mental health research and education. The Institute’s research strengths, in Brain and Behaviour, Neural Injury and Repair and Healthy Brain Aging, are leading to a better understanding of the brain and nervous system and new treatments for neurological and mental health disorders, aimed at improving quality of life and patient care. More information about the HBI can be found at hbi.ucalgary.ca.

About the University of Calgary

The University of Calgary is a global intellectual hub located in Canada’s most enterprising city. In our spirited, high-quality learning environment, students thrive in programs made rich by research, hands-on experiences and entrepreneurial thinking. Our strategy drives us to be recognized as one of Canada’s top five research universities, engaging the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.' For more information, visit ucalgary.ca/eyeshigh.

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