Fluctuations in blood biomarkers of head trauma in NCAA football athletes over the course of a season

Jonathan M. Oliver*, Anthony J. Anzalone, Jason D. Stone, Stephanie M. Turner, Damond Blueitt, J. Craig Garrison, Andrew T. Askow, Joel A. Luedke, Andrew R. Jagim

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE Repetitive subconcussive head trauma is a consequence of participation in contact sports and may be linked to neurodegenerative diseases. The degree of neurological injury caused by subconcussive head trauma is not easily detectible, and this injury does not induce readily identifiable clinical signs or symptoms. Recent advancements in immunoassays make possible the detection and quantification of blood biomarkers linked to head trauma. Identification of a blood biomarker that can identify the extent of neurological injury associated with subconcussive head trauma may provide an objective measure for informed decisions concerning cumulative exposure to subconcussive head trauma. The purpose of the current study was to examine changes in the blood biomarkers of subconcussive head trauma over the course of an American football season. METHODS Thirty-five National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) American football athletes underwent blood sampling throughout the course of a football season. Serial samples were obtained throughout the 2016 season, during which the number and magnitude of head impacts changed. Blood samples were analyzed for plasma concentrations of tau and serum concentrations of neurofilament light polypeptide (NF-L). Athletes were grouped based on their starter status, because athletes identified as starters are known to sustain a greater number of impacts. Between-group differences and time-course differences were assessed. RESULTS In nonstarters, plasma concentrations of tau decreased over the course of the season, with lower values observed in starters; this resulted in a lower area under the curve (AUC) (starters: 416.78 ± 129.17 pg/ml/day; nonstarters: 520.84 ± 163.19 pg/ml/day; p = 0.050). Plasma concentrations of tau could not be used to discern between starters and nonstarters. In contrast, serum concentrations of NF-L increased throughout the season as head impacts accumulated, specifically in those athletes categorized as starters. The higher serum concentrations of NF-L observed in starters resulted in a larger AUC (starters: 1605.03 ± 655.09 pg/ml/day; nonstarters: 1067.29 ± 272.33 pg/ml/day; p = 0.007). The AUC of the receiver operating characteristic curve analyses displayed fair to modest accuracy to identify athletes who were starters with the use of serum NF-L following periods of repetitive impacts. CONCLUSIONS The different patterns observed in serum NF-L and plasma tau concentrations provide preliminary evidence for the use of blood biomarkers to detect the neurological injury associated with repetitive subconcussive head trauma. Although further investigation is necessary, such findings might lay the foundation for the further development of an objective measure for the detection of neurological injury caused by subconcussive head trauma.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1655-1662
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of neurosurgery
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Blood biomarkers of head trauma
  • Mild traumatic brain injury
  • Sports-related concussion
  • Sports-related head trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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