A Simple Spit Test May Revolutionize How We Diagnose Concussions

Researchers at Penn State University have discovered small molecules in saliva can predict the length of concussion symptoms with 85% accuracy.

Diagnosing the severity of a concussion could soon be as simple as collecting a swab of saliva.

New research from Penn State University has found that a select number of small molecules found in saliva have legitimate potential for both identifying a concussion and predicting how long symptoms may last. These molecules, called "microRNAs," are altered following traumatic brain injury. Since the researchers had no knowledge of an existing "objective or easily administered test for predicting prolonged concussion symptoms," they wanted to see if it was possible to develop one using five select microRNAs.

Since almost two-thirds of concussions occur in children and adolescents, the study focused on 53 participants between the ages of 7 and 21. The study was carried out at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, and the test was as simple as having concussed participants spit in a cup and then analyzing the saliva with technology commonly found in hospitals and clinics. They found that levels of five microRNAs identified patients who would have prolonged symptoms with an accuracy rate of approximately 85 percent. That's significantly better than the Standardized Concussion Assessment Tool 3, a questionnaire that aims to help predict how long concussion symptoms may last.

"It's frustrating for both parents and physicians that we can't accurately and objectively predict how long a child's concussion symptoms might last, what those symptoms are likely to consist of and when it might be safe for them to return to sports or school," Dr. Steve Hicks, senior author of the study, told CNN. "Five microRNAs in saliva could predict with approximately 85 percent accuracy which concussed children would have symptoms one month later. In comparison, standard survey measures that are typically used in clinics were approximately 65 percent accurate."

Allowing an athlete to return to play too soon after a concussion is a serious hazard. Many young athletes may not understand the significance of the situation, and thus could try to hide symptoms so they can get back to their sport more quickly. A test that could easily and objectively predict how long a concussed athlete's symptoms might last would therefore be of great value. Since this is the first study of its kind, there remains much research to be done before the test would see widespread implementation. But it is an encouraging sign that may help better diagnose and manage concussions.

"Because the markers we identified in this study are not correlated with patient age, we are hopeful they may be applied in adult populations, as well," Hicks said. The researchers are currently working to test the method on adult athletes and armed service members.

Photo Credit: skynesher/iStock

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