A simple saliva test is being used successfully to diagnose concussions among professional rugby players in the UK. Researchers have found distinct chemical “signatures’ that correctly diagnose 96% of concussions among 1,028 male professional rugby athletes from the two top-tier leagues in England over two seasons. The results are reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
This test could be a game changer in that it provides a non-invasive and rapid diagnostic test for concussions. Imagine having them on site at equestrian events? Concussions can be difficult to diagnose. As a result, a high percentage of concussions are missed. As we become more aware of the long-term impact of concussions (even mild ones), the chance to diagnose them quickly, without visiting an Emergency Room, is of vital importance.
I don’t know about you, but at least once I had a fall where I didn’t experience the symptoms of a concussion for several hours — after I’d finished a foxhunt, loaded my horse and trailered home. While we probably won’t see these tests at foxhunts any time soon, I can see how valuable they would be at horse shows and combined training events.
The test is currently in the process of being commercialized as an over-the-counter test targeted at elite male athletes. Researches plan to collect more samples among rugby players to provide additional data to expand the test. They are also carrying out additional studies to further validate and expand the test for use in groups that were not included in the present study, including female athletes, young athletes, and participants in community-level sports.
“The results of our exciting and ground-breaking research shows that for the first time we have successfully identified that these specific salivary biomarkers can be used to indicate if a player has been concussed,” study investigator Antonio Belli, MD, senior author and professor of trauma neurosurgery, University of Birmingham, said England, at a press briefing.
Researchers began the trial soon after they identified a concentration of specific molecules in the saliva that change rapidly after brain injury. To provide a baseline, they collected samples before the season began from 1028 players. Samples were taken immediately after each game and 36 to 48 hours postgame from players with head injuries, uninjured players, and players with other injuries. The samples were analyzed on equipment available to most labs. All players with suspected head injury also went through the head injury assessment (protocol developed by World Rugby that English rugby teams follow).
Over two seasons, 106 of 393 players were found to have head injuries.
While this was an observational study, the results indicate that since saliva can receive cellular signals directly from cranial nerves in the mouth and throat, it can rapidly register traumatic brain injury, making a saliva test particularly suitable for on site diagnosis.
Hopefully, the results can be expanded to validate the results among female athletes and young athletes. Early diagnosis of concussions can help vulnerable populations to take appropriate steps to heal their brains, helping to prevent long-term issues.