Concussion in rugby players: Saliva samples to be used to diagnose players

An “exciting” breakthrough in diagnosing concussion using elite rugby players’ saliva samples has been made by researchers.

The Rugby Football Union has spent the last four years taking part in the study, run by the University of Birmingham.

Those who have suffered head injuries at both Premiership and Championship level have had samples taken both during and after a game.

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Molecules, otherwise known as biomarkers, found in their saliva identified whether they had suffered from concussion or not.

Testing saliva is less invasive than taking a blood sample, which means it is easier to roll out in sport, both at elite level and in the community.

While the “ground-breaking” discovery is currently performed as a lab test, it is hoped in the not too distant future it will be transformed into a pitch-side test, that can provide an accurate reading shortly after the concussion has taken place.

The RFU’s Professor Simon Kemp told Sky Sports News: “Ideally we would like to have a test that could be used at all time points, so that very early time point.

“But we think in the first instance something that could confirm a concussion the next morning would be incredibly valuable and realistically deliverable in a short time scale.

“What we have seen with biomarkers is they change very quickly, so there is the potential to have a test, if we had the technology, that could be used very quickly after someone was removed. But that is not our immediate plan. Our immediate plan is to have one available at 24 hours”.

The RFU will be taking part in further trials, which will focus on two upcoming elite men’s competitions and a female competition.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Birmingham are already in talks with footballing authorities to carry out similar research alongside the concussion substitute pilot that was introduced to the Premier League and the Women’s Super League earlier this year.

Neurosurgeon and lead researcher, Professor Tony Belli, said: “Probably the most exciting thing is that this is on a non-invasive fluid.

“A lot of the research done on this type of work for the diagnosis of concussion is done on blood. That is great and we do some of that ourselves, but blood is not something you can do on the pitch-side. In certain situations you need a trained phlebotomist or doctor to take a blood sample. So actually having it in saliva is now in reach of everyone, by having a very simple mouth swab.

“The signal of concussion is really detectable immediately after the event. When rugby players were removed from the pitch immediately and had the first medical assessment, this biomarker of concussion was already there and was measurable”.

Professor Belli now plans to carry out additional research looking at the impact concussion has on female athletes. It is hoped this discovery will, in future, help not only those in the sporting world, but also medical experts in emergency departments to diagnose brain trauma in critical patients.

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