Concussions are a danger in nearly every sport, but perhaps no sport's organization has dealt with them as publicly as the National Football League (NFL.) After years of brushing concussion concerns under the rug, the NFL, prompted by a whistle-blowing Hollywood movie as well as a class-action lawsuit, is now spending millions of dollars on research to prevent and detect head trauma.

One promising new finding to come out of that funding is the discovery of certain markers in the blood that correlate with concussion and other traumatic injuries. Specifically, researchers are now working on detecting small amounts of a protein called neurofilament light that might give doctors, players, and coaches more accurate information about the health of an athlete. Ironically, neurofilament light is also referred to as NFL.

What makes the research surrounding neurofilament light so promising is that a blood test could be developed to detect the small amounts of this protein that cross the blood-brain barrier during an injury. And in theory, that blood test could be conducted on the field or in the locker room rather than hours or days later at the hospital.

When an athlete takes a hit on the field, medical personnel use subjective information, such as the athlete's reported symptoms, to determine whether or not an athlete can return to play. But the problem with that is players are already under a lot of pressure to get back in the game and that may cloud everyone's judgment in the heat of the moment. A blood test that offers more quantifiable data would take the guessing out of it and give doctors, coaches, and athletes more immediate feedback about the potential risks of continued play.

More time in the game means higher protein levels

Researchers still need to better understand the role that the NFL-protein plays in the body and how and when its presence in the blood indicates a problem. In this 2015 study, researchers compared the NFL-protein levels of starter football players with non-starters on the team who were likely not to see as much game time. At the beginning of the season, all players had roughly similar levels of NFL-protein. But as the season progressed, and athletes began practicing and playing games more frequently, they found that the starters had NFL-protein levels that rose in correlation with the amount of impact they were seeing on the field.

Of course, there are still a number of kinks to work out. For instance, researchers don't know if individual changes in NFL-protein levels necessarily indicate a problem or if some people just have higher baseline levels than others. They also don't know at what point an elevated NFL-protein level goes from a symptom to watch to one that indicates the player has experienced a traumatic head injury. Oh, and there is also the matter that researchers are still working on developing a blood test that can detect the NFL-protein on the sidelines.

Still, it looks promising, and researchers are hopeful that the NFL-protein may give the NFL - as well as other sport organizations, the military, and emergency medical personnel, the ability to quickly and easily detect head injuries. That will help keep athletes of all ages healthier and in the game.

How a protein called NFL could help detect concussions faster
Researchers hope the protein neurofilament light or NFL could one day help them diagnose head injuries in the middle of a game.