Mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) is a major cause of emergency room (ER) admission. Thirty percent of mTBI patients have postconcussion syndrome (PCS), and 15% have symptoms for over a year. This population is underdiagnosed and does not receive appropriate care. The authors proposed a fast and inexpensive fluorometric measurement of circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) as a biomarker for PCS. cfDNA is a proven, useful marker of a variety of acute pathological conditions such as trauma and acute illness.
Thirty mTBI patients were recruited for this prospective single-center trial. At admission, patients completed questionnaires and blood was drawn to obtain cfDNA. At 3–4 months after injury, 18 patients returned for cognitive assessments with questionnaires and the Color Trails Test (CTT). The fast SYBR Gold assay was used to measure cfDNA.
Seventeen men and 13 women participated in this trial. The mean ± SD age was 50.9 ± 13.9 years. Of the 18 patients who returned for cognitive assessment, one-third reported working fewer hours, 4 (22.2%) changed their driving patterns, and 5 (27.7%) reduced or stopped performing physical activity. The median cfDNA level of the mTBI group was greater than that of the matched healthy control group (730.5 vs 521.5 ng/ml, p = 0.0395). Admission cfDNA concentration was negatively correlated with performance on the CTT1 and CTT2 standardized tests (r = −0.559 and −0.599), meaning that greater cfDNA level was correlated with decreased cognitive performance status. The performance of the patients with normal cfDNA level included in the mTBI group was similar to that of the healthy participants. In contrast, the increased cfDNA group (> 800 ng/ml) had lower scores on the CTT tests than the normal cfDNA group (p < 0.001). Furthermore, patients with moderate/severe cognitive impairment according to CTT1 results had a greater median cfDNA level than the patients with scores indicating mild impairment or normal function (1186 vs 473.5 ng/ml, p = 0.0441, area under the receiver operating characteristic curve = 0.8393).
The data from this pilot study show the potential to use cfDNA, as measured with a fast test, as a biomarker to screen for PCS in the ER. A large-scale study is required to establish the value of cfDNA as an early predictor of PCS.