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Spit test may diagnose concussions in athletes

Penn State researchers said a spit test may be able to diagnose a concussion and predict how long symptoms will last.

HERSHEY, Pa. — Can doctors use spit to diagnose concussions? Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine are working to achieve just that.

A groundbreaking study addresses concussions head on. Dr. Steven Hicks, associate professor of Pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, said a spit test may be able to diagnose a concussion and predict how long symptoms will last, keeping athletes safer on the field.

“There’s really no wiggle room for athletes to manipulate the results,” Dr. Hicks said.

In every sample of saliva, there are thousands of small molecules of ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Our bodies use RNA molecules to signal from one cell to another.

“Some of those signals have to do with how the nerves in our mouth are working. How they’re helping to form speech, how they’re helping to move our tongue, so when those nerves release particular RNA’s to signal to one another, sometimes that signaling is disrupted, especially after you’ve had a major injury to the brain,” explained Dr. Hicks.\

The saliva test measures specific RNA’s to determine whether the signal is disrupted by a head impact. It’s something Hicks hopes can be administered on the sidelines at sports games and deliver results within minutes. The technology Hicks and his team used in their most recent study takes about 24 to 48 hours to return a result.

“We have a pilot study that we’re doing right now with engineers at Penn State who are helping us to develop a handheld tool that we hope will be able to measure these molecules within 15 to 30 minutes,” he said.

It could be potential game changer in the world of high school sports, which have the highest concussion rates according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. The effects can be severe and lead to anxiety, confusion and other serious symptoms.

“I may be naïve, but it’s my hope that coaches, players, parents and pretty much everyone involved who’s a stakeholder here can see the value in something that adds accuracy to the diagnosis of concussion,” added Dr. Hicks. “We’re hopeful that this tool can be embraced by the entire sports community and other communities that suffer from concussion.”

The new study involved 538 participants and the accuracy of the saliva RNA test was around 85 percent compared to other clinical tools that measure balance or reaction time. The next step is a larger clinical study involving close to 2,000 individuals.

Hicks is working with Quadrant Biosciences, who recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to do a larger clinical study to validate the method and further develop the technology.

Hicks said the work expands upon a smaller pilot study that showed microRNA could be used to predict the duration of concussion symptoms and that further effort is needed to develop the test into a portable technology that can be used field-side by athletic trainers immediately after an injury occurs, by emergency responders at the scene of an accident or by army medics on a battlefield.  He hopes to bring this new tool to the market within the next 3 years.

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