Saliva Testing Might Soon Be Used to Diagnose Concussions

brain scans

According to researchers at Penn State College of Medicine, doctors might soon be able to accurately diagnose concussions by measuring the number of certain molecules in human saliva. The results of a recent clinical study revealed that spit might be used to assist with concussion diagnosis in a non-invasive, non-biased fashion.

The Penn State research team analyzed saliva samples of more than 500 study participants for small strands of genetic material known as micro ribonucleic acid (microRNA). MicroRNA plays a major role in cellular processes and exist in high amounts in the brain. Researchers hypothesized that due to the presence of cranial nerves in the mouth, altered microRNA levels could suggest if a person is experiencing a concussion.

Concussions are the result of physical trauma to the head. The symptoms of a concussion can include headaches, dizziness, and confusion. Currently, doctors use symptom scales and neurocognitive tests to evaluate patients and diagnose concussions. However, researchers say these methods might not be very reliable because they are subject to patient and physician bias.

According to Dr. Steve Hicks, "Current methods rely on accurate symptom reporting and honest performance on neurocognitive testing. Analyzing microRNA profiles in saliva following head trauma is a non-invasive way to test for concussion that can't be influenced by a patient's feelings or motives."

To develop this new diagnostic approach to analyzing microRNA, researchers recruited 538 participants from 11 clinical sites. Roughly half the participants in the study had reported a concussion within two weeks of starting the study. The other half of the participants did not have concussions during that timeframe but had conditions that might mimic concussion symptoms.

The Penn State researchers used RNA sequencing to evaluate saliva samples from half of the participants and used statistical modeling and machine learning to find noticeable differences between the RNA profiles of participants with concussions and those without.

After researchers identified which RNA changes to keep an out for, they tested more than 200 additional participants and successfully identified which patients had concussions. The accuracy of the saliva method to diagnose concussions performed favorably when compared with the tests involving balance and reaction time that doctors currently use.

The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Medicine. Dr. Hicks said, “This method has lots of promising applications. A rapid, reliable diagnostic means that early, appropriate action can be taken to alleviate the symptoms of patients with concussions."

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