Associate professor Changiz Taghibiglou (left) and Dr. Yanbo Zhang are collaborating on concussion research in the College of Medicine. (Photo: James Shewaga)

Improving concussion tests and treatment

Imagine a portable and inexpensive sideline or roadside test to quickly and accurately determine if you have suffered a concussion in a game or car accident, and a hand-held device to immediately begin treatment.

By James Shewaga

For University of Saskatchewan researcher Changiz Taghibiglou and his colleagues, there is hope that day might not be far off.

“It is a very serious matter, so that is why we are excited about the prospect of improving quality of life for people with traumatic brain injuries,” said Taghibiglou, an associate professor of pharmacology in the College of Medicine and a member of the Neuroscience Research Cluster at the U of S. “We are still in the research stage and showing great potential, but it will take time. But the goal is one day we want to take it to the field and be able to help people.”

Over the past seven years, Taghibiglou has been working on improving tests for traumatic brain injuries, publishing research that successfully identified protein biomarkers in a patient’s blood that accurately determines whether an individual has suffered a concussion. Further research found a second biomarker that can pinpoint the severity of the brain injury, using a simple blood test that could be used on the sidelines or on the bench during sporting events, at the scene of an accident, on the battlefield, or in the emergency room.

“We can determine if the person suffered from a concussion brain injury and also which level of severity it is,” said Taghibiglou, who successfully tested his research with U of S Huskies athletes. “These two biomarkers that we have identified can go together in a kit. That is our ultimate goal: To put them in a diagnostic kit that can be used by emergency medical personnel and in emergency rooms, or by team physicians or military doctors. It works, but it needs investment from industrial partners to develop.”

What is most exciting for Taghibiglou’s team is new research that is proving promising in its potential to treat traumatic brain injuries. Working with Dr. Yanbo Zhang, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the U of S, along with post-doctoral fellow Sathiya Sekar, the researchers have found that using low-field magnetic stimulation could help treat and even reverse damage from concussions.

“We are confident that this could be a game-changer, particularly if we launch human studies and the data is there and proves that it is effective,” said Taghibiglou, who presented the new research in poster format at the annual Canadian Neuroscience Conference in Vancouver in May. “It basically is showing that the magnetic field treatment reversed the pathology, reserved the damage, so that is exciting for us. We are the first ones testing this in Canada.”

So far, testing has been limited to rodent subjects, but does offer the promise of providing a new quick and efficient method of treating concussions.

“When we started this project, we were not expecting this significant success, but our surprisingly good results really strengthened our confidence and our passion that it works,” said Zhang, who was awarded a $117,500 grant from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation in July to support the research into magnetic stimulation to promote brain repair. “We are developing a non-invasive way to deliver a magnetic field to basically help the brain to reset and to recover. It is safe and non-invasive, so there is no opening of the skull. And it is very affordable and portable, laptop-sized, so the patient could just lie on it with their head while it works.”

Zhang and Taghibiglou believe their new tools to diagnose and treat concussions could eventually offer effective and efficient therapy for patients, while also providing significant savings for the health-care system, resulting in fewer costly imaging tests (MRIs and CT scans), and shortening hospital stays for patients.

“There is a human impact in terms of helping patients, as well as an economic impact with saving health-care resources and lessening the burden on our health-care systems,” said Taghibiglou, who has also submitted the new research for publication in a leading research journal. “The economic long-term impact of concussions is in the billions of dollars, with losing working days, disability leave, you name it. And of course, we improve the quality of life, which is most important.”

Zhang is now seeking approval for human testing, through the university’s Research Ethics Department and Health Canada.

“A similar magnetic stimulation treatment has been tested on patients in the United States and in China for many different disorders, like depression and bipolar disorder, and the patients improve quickly,” said Zhang. “So, we want to show that it is effective in treating concussion as well, with early diagnosis and early intervention to limit the damage.”

Taghibiglou said they are also looking for funding agencies to continue their magnetic stimulation research, while also seeking a manufacturing partner to develop a concussion diagnosis kit using their successful protein biomarker blood tests.

“The next step is commercialization,” he said. “We are in touch with diagnostic kit developers to see if we can take this project to the manufacturing level … And if we can attract funding from Health Canada and CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) or athletic bodies like professional football and hockey clubs, we can take (magnetic therapy) one step further and test it with humans and see if we can improve somebody’s life.”

Both Taghibiglou and Zhang said this collaborative research project is another example of the strength of the university, drawing on complementary expertise to improve health care.

“We are in the early stages here, but the strength here is Changiz is a well-known basic scientist and has a really solid foundation in cognition and the traumatic brain injury field, and I am a basic scientist as well as a clinician, so we are a good collaboration,” said Zhang. “Changiz, with his knowledge and expertise, really gives us a scientific foundation to see what we need to do to improve both diagnosis and treatment. We work well together.”