The Known Unknowns: An Overview of the State of Blood-Based Protein Biomarkers of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Blood-based protein biomarkers have revolutionized several fields of medicine by enabling molecular level diagnosis, as well as monitoring disease progression and treatment efficacy. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) so far has benefitted only moderately from using protein biomarkers to improve injury outcome. Because of its complexity and dynamic nature, TBI, especially its most prevalent mild form (mild TBI; mTBI), presents unique challenges toward protein biomarker discovery and validation given that blood is frequently obtained and processed outside of the clinical laboratory (e.g., athletic fields, battlefield) under variable conditions. As it stands, the field of mTBI blood biomarkers faces a number of outstanding questions. Do elevated blood levels of currently used biomarkers - ubiquitin carboxy-terminal hydrolase L1, glial fibrillary acidic protein, neurofilament light chain, and tau/p-tau - truly mirror the extent of parenchymal damage? Do these different proteins represent distinct injury mechanisms? Is the blood-brain barrier a "brick wall"? What is the relationship between intra- versus extracranial values? Does prolonged elevation of blood levels reflect de novo release or extended protein half-lives? Does biological sex affect the pathobiological responses after mTBI and thus blood levels of protein biomarkers? At the practical level, it is unknown how pre-analytical variables - sample collection, preparation, handling, and stability - affect the quality and reliability of biomarker data. The ever-increasing sensitivity of assay systems and lack of quality control of samples, combined with the almost complete reliance on antibody-based assay platforms, represent important unsolved issues given that false-negative results can lead to false clinical decision making and adverse outcomes. This article serves as a commentary on the state of mTBI biomarkers and the landscape of significant challenges. We highlight and discusses several biological and methodological "known unknowns"and close with some practical recommendations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2652-2666
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neurotrauma
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2021


  • blood-brain barrier
  • concussion
  • glymphatic system
  • immunoassay
  • pathophysiology
  • pre-analytical variable

Cite this