How the gut could actually help diagnose concussions, predict recovery

A concussion occurs when the brain bounces against the inside of the skull, getting battered and bruised in the process. It causes trauma with potentially lifelong, severe, neurologic consequences. Yet, diagnosis has relied on self-reported symptoms, such as blurry vision, headache, and nausea. Could the gut help diagnose concussions too? Scientists at the Houston Methodist Research Institute show a post-concussion drop of two bacterial species normally found in abundance in stool samples of healthy individuals.

Researchers report that the study demonstrates a simple, objective diagnostic test could be developed to diagnose concussions.

According to Sonia Villapol, PhD, assistant professor at the Center for Neuroregeneration at Houston Methodist, the central nervous system is also intimately linked to the enteric nervous system. After a concussion, the injuries cause inflammation, sending small proteins and molecules circulating through the blood that breach the intestinal barrier and cause changes in the gut, affecting metabolism

“This is why studying the gut is so useful. It doesn’t lie. And that is why there is so much interest in using it for diagnostic purposes.” Villapol says in a statement. The test could also track the impact of concussions and when it’s safe to return to action.

The study, conducted over the course of one season, used blood, stool, and saliva specimens from 33 Rice University football players. Only four of the players in the study were diagnosed with major concussions. The researchers say the results will need to be confirmed in a larger sample size. 

They also plan to conduct a similar study soon with women soccer players. “Women and men don’t have the same immunities or gut microbiomes,” Villapol said. “Women soccer players have very high rates of concussions, as well, and all the same problems when it comes to existing diagnostic methods.”

The study is published in the journal Brain, Behavior, & Immunity – Health.


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About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Faith A. Coleman MD
Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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