March 25, 2021
Researchers in the U.K. have developed a spit test which can quickly diagnose concussions. The study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine successfully and reliably detected concussions in a study of over a thousand male rugby players in the U.K.
The test was developed to detect tiny molecules called microRNAs, which previous research by the group had found to be more abundant in the saliva of people who had a concussion.
“Concussion can be difficult to diagnose, particularly in settings such as grass roots sports where evaluation by a specialist clinician is not possible. Consequently, some concussions may go undiagnosed,” said Dr Valentina Di Pietro, PhD, first author of the study from the University of Birmingham in the U.K.
The three year study followed 1,028 professional male rugby players in the U.K. and tested saliva samples from players who experienced head injuries and also those who had injuries to other parts of the body, as well as uninjured players. By comparing samples from these players, they found that they were able to reliably detect concussions with an impressive 94% accuracy.
“A non-invasive and accurate diagnostic test using saliva is a real game changer and may provide an invaluable tool to help clinicians diagnose concussions more consistently and accurately,” said Di Pietro.
Concussions are frequent injuries in both amateur and pro sports in the U.S., but are hard to definitively diagnose. Both the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) have been embroiled in controversy with regards to player concussions and longer-term brain injuries in recent years, with some former players claiming they were encouraged to keep playing even while experiencing concussion symptoms.
“There are concerns regarding the long-term brain health of those exposed to repeated concussions. In professional sports, this diagnostic tool may be used in addition to current head injury assessment protocols and return to play evaluation to ensure the safety of individuals,” said Di Pietro.
However the researchers are keen to stress the limitations of the study and note that they do not yet know whether the test will work on children or women in the same way, although work is ongoing to evaluate this.
“It would be wrong to extrapolate the results of our study to groups that were not included, e.g. women and children, due to biological differences. However, we are already collecting additional data to adapt the test to women’s rugby and, after the completion of those studies, we will roll out a test that can be used to assess concussion in women’s rugby players,” said Di Pietro.
At the moment, the test requires lab-based analysis, but the researchers are working on another version of the test that could be much quicker and give results at the point of use, which they hope will expand its potential uses to people in road traffic accidents and those serving in the military.