A quick and highly accurate saliva test for concussion could be ready for use in professional sport within a year following a ground-breaking study led by Birmingham researchers.
The three-year investigation, in collaboration with the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby and Marker Diagnostics, saw researchers take saliva samples from professional men’s rugby players in English rugby’s top two leagues, and found that specific RNA "biomarkers" could be used as a diagnostic test for concussion.
Results from the test showed that it correctly predicted the result of a World Rugby protocol head injury assessment (HIA) with 94 per cent accuracy.
Tony Belli, Professor of Trauma Neurosurgery at the University of Birmingham and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, explains: 'Concussions can be very subtle and difficult to diagnose, especially in community or grassroots sports, where evaluation by medical specialists is not possible.
'For the first time we have successfully identified that these specific salivary biomarkers can be used to indicate if a player has been concussed. This is a real breakthrough because it's not invasive, it is easy to collect and highly accurate.
'Crucially, the concussion biomarkers are measurable within minutes of injury, enabling rapid diagnoses. In an elite sport situation, doctors and physiotherapists will want to have an objective tool to corroborate the clinical diagnosis.
'But perhaps even more importantly, in community sports, there is no medical help. What you want there is something that would be equivalent to a professional assessment, available for millions of amateur or junior players.
'Hopefully this will help prevent some of the horrific incidents we've seen in recent years where concussion is missed, and players suffer the effects of that injury long-term.'
The dangers presented by sport-related concussions and their long-term effects have risen in prominence in recent years, with potential links to early-onset dementia and other neuro-degenerative disease.
Beyond high-impact sports such as elite rugby, football and american football, where head injuries are common, the test could potentially be used in wider settings such as military conflict and healthcare.
Marker Diagnostics, a subsidiary of Swiss biotechnology company Marker AG, is in the process of developing the patented salivary concussion test as an over-the-counter test, initially for elite male athletes.
Meanwhile, the company and the University are carrying out further studies to further validate and expand the test for use in different groups that were not included in the initial research, including women, young athletes and community sports players.