Penn State

Is there a more accurate way to diagnose concussions? Penn State says yes.

Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson (12) suffered a concussion after a hit by Wisconsin’s Jason Jefferson in 2004. Penn State researchers think the molecules in saliva might be key to diagnosing concussion and detemining the length of symptoms.
Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson (12) suffered a concussion after a hit by Wisconsin’s Jason Jefferson in 2004. Penn State researchers think the molecules in saliva might be key to diagnosing concussion and detemining the length of symptoms. For the Centre Daily Times, file

People hit their heads all the time.

Car crashes. Sports injuries. Inadvertent tumbles down the stairs. All of them can leave a person’s brain rattling around in their skull, banging and tearing in a way that you can’t see from the outside.

They call it a concussion. You hear about them all the time with athletes, people like Pittsburgh Penguins forward and captain Sidney Crosby, who has spent a large chunk of his all-star career benched with brain injuries. Football, soccer, basketball, baseball, hockey — anything where you can take a blow to the head has the potential of impacting your brain.

Concussions have been in the spotlight in recent years as chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a condition developed as the cumulative effect of multiple injuries over time — has been identified. Boxers and football players have been the most famous examples for those affected.

The symptoms themselves are not conclusive. They include headaches, dizziness, loss of consciousness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are often not a big deal, with quick recovery, although children and teens may take longer, and “those who have had a concussion in the past are also at risk of having another one and may find that it takes longer to recover if they have another concussion.”

But what about kids?

Concussions can be hard to diagnose. In athletes, a baseline test at the beginning of the season can be compared to a player’s performance afterward to try to decide if there was injury. But if you fell on the playground or off your bike, you probably didn’t take the test, and kids might have a harder time answering the questions.

It’s not like there is an easy test. Yet. Penn State College of Medicine is working to change that.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to objectively identify that a concussion has happened and then predict how long the symptoms will go on for,” assistant professor of pediatrics Steven Hicks said. “Then we can use that knowledge to improve the care that we provide for children who have concussions, either by starting medicine earlier or holding them out of activities for longer.”

Researchers recently measured the levels of microRNAs in the saliva of concussion patients and found that the presence of certain microRNAs was able to better identify concussions than previous known tests.

“There’s been a big push recently to find more objective markers that a concussion has occurred, instead of relying simply on patient surveys,” Hicks said. “Previous research has focused on proteins, but this approach is limited because proteins have a hard time crossing the blood-brain barrier. What’s novel about this study is we looked at microRNAs instead of proteins, and we decided to look in saliva rather than blood.”

In addition to determining if the patient has suffered a concussion, the test might also be able to say how long the effects will last.

“The microRNAs were able to predict whether symptoms would last beyond four weeks with about 85 percent accuracy,” Hicks said in a release. “In comparison, using the SCAT-3 report of symptoms alone is about 64 percent accurate. If you just go off the parent’s report of symptoms, it goes down to the mid-50s. In this pilot study, these molecular signatures are outperforming survey tools.”

The possibility comes on the heels of another new brain injury development. Just last week, Chicago researchers announced they had identified protein markers that showed CTE in a living patient. The diagnosis was confirmed after the former football player’s death.

Until now, CTE has only been able to be diagnosed after death.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce

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