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Saliva test could help diagnose concussion in sport

View profile for Kim Chamberlain
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Spitting into a handheld device could soon be a way of making a quick, pitch-side concussion diagnosis. 

This season, Premier League footballers are participating in a ‘ground-breaking’ new concussion study that could lead to a more effective diagnosis. 

The study being led by the University of Birmingham, will involve saliva and urine samples being taken from players with head injuries as well as uninjured 'control' players by club doctors after matches. 

The 'Birmingham Concussion Test' has been developed after a decade of research led by academic neurosurgeon Professor Tony Belli. It looks for molecules in the blood, saliva or urine - known as microRNAs - that can act as biomarkers to indicate if a brain injury has been sustained.

Dr Patrick O'Halloran, sports concussion research fellow at the University of Birmingham, told BBC Sport: "Having a black and white test that gives you a clear answer that's understandable to everyone - medical staff, players, coaches - is the Holy Grail. An objective test like this would be a game-changer and would really help at all levels of sport."

The team hopes to develop a handheld device that will assist in concussion diagnosis and work out when players who’ve sustained a brain injury can return to play. 

As reported here, the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Acquired Brain Injury stated last year that there is "poor awareness" and a "lack of knowledge" in managing sports-related brain injuries. In addition, “return to play” guidelines are “often not understood or implemented adequately”.

Expert Insight

Novum Law Director Kim Chamberlain says: “There is increasing awareness of the dangers sportsmen and women face due to suffering repeated impacts to the head during play and growing recognition that these brain injuries can have lifelong consequences. 

“The brain is particularly vulnerable immediately after a concussion and further impacts to the head can increase the severity of existing damage and potentially lead to neurological issues in later life. However, spotting a concussion can be extremely difficult; particularly during a match when players want to return to the game as quickly as possible. 

“The development of a definitive test carried out in real time would be a tremendous step forward in diagnosing concussion and helping reduce the long-term effects of sports-related brain injuries.”