Study confirms spit testing may help doctors diagnose concussions

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Doctors may soon be able to more accurately diagnose concussions by measuring the number of certain molecules in a person’s saliva, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers. The results of a recent clinical study confirmed that a patient’s spit may be used to aid concussion diagnosis in a non-invasive, non-biased fashion.

Researchers analyzed the saliva of more than 500 study participants for tiny strands of genetic material called micro ribonucleic acid (microRNA). These molecules play an important role in cellular processes and exist in high amounts in the brain. The investigators hypothesized that due to the presence of cranial nerves in the mouth, altered microRNA levels could indicate whether a patient is experiencing a concussion.

Concussions occur as a result of physical injury to the head and may result in short-lived symptoms including headaches, dizziness and confusion. Physicians currently use symptom scales and neurocognitive tests to assess patients and diagnose concussions. Researchers say these methods may not be reliable because they can be subject to patient and physician bias. For example, athletes may underreport a symptom’s severity to return to the field.

“Current methods rely on accurate symptom reporting and honest performance on neurocognitive testing,” said Dr. Steve Hicks, associate professor of pediatrics and principal investigator. “Analyzing microRNA profiles in saliva following a head trauma is a non-invasive way to test for concussion that can’t be influenced by a patient’s feelings or motives.”

This project was supported by a sponsored research agreement between Quadrant Biosciences and the Penn State College of Medicine. National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences through Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (UL1 TR002014) also supported this research. Hicks is a scholar in the institute’s Early Stage Investigator Training Program (KL2 TR002015). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

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