Quirks and Quarks

Game-changing saliva test could rapidly diagnose concussions for athletes

Researchers from the University of Birmingham discover a simple but accurate way to test for concussions, by tapping into the "alarm bells" sent by the body in the minutes after injury.

Biological markers for concussion found in saliva have the potential to be the basis of a new fast test

Wyatt Crockett of the Crusaders is assessed for a concussion during a Super Rugby match in New Zealand. (Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

A three-year study with the participation of top level rugby players in the UK has led to the discovery of a simple but accurate way to detect for concussions, by tapping into the "alarm bells" sent by the body in the minutes after injury.

Antonio Belli, a Professor of Trauma Neurosurgery at the University of Birmingham, found that traumatic brain injury can be diagnosed using a simple saliva test. The test would look for biomarkers, or messenger molecules that released by the body upon injury, and which are detectable at high levels in saliva soon after a head injury.

"These biomarkers are genetic messengers," Belli told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "They're present in other bio-fluids, but they're particularly abundant in saliva."

In the study, the concentration of these molecules in saliva increased 1000 times within two to three minutes in players identified as having a concussion. The concentration were elevated in some cases for hours, or even days.

"The body is preparing to respond to injury. So effectively, these are alarm bells. But also sort of codes that the cells send to one another to say, hey, you don't need to make this anymore... but make this other protein instead, for example, because this is needed for repair."

Using DNA sequencing technology at the University of Birmingham, Belli tested the biomarkers in saliva samples of 1,028 professional men's rugby players from England's top two leagues — The Premiership and the Championship — from the 2017-18 season.

Belli identified a panel of 14 saliva biomarkers present in concussed players. They applied the test to the entire 2018-19 season with 94 percent accuracy in concussion detection.

Listen to Belli's full interview at the link above.

Produced by Mark Crawley. Written by Amanda Buckiewicz.