Elite male players across the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons helped developed the test

Saliva test 94% accurate in head injury study

A saliva test could be used to diagnose concussion in the future following a study amongst elite male players.

Researchers have developed a test that uses microscopic DNA markers in saliva to detect concussion and it predicted the head injury assessment (HIA) result of 156 Premiership and Championship players across the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons with 94% accuracy.

The SCRUM study was conducted by the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with the RFU, Premiership Rugby and Marker Diagnostics, who specialise in biomarkers.

Brain injuries are understandably a major area of concern within rugby, with the RFU, WRU and World Rugby facing a lawsuit from former players who have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

Similarly, sport in general is facing the same level level of scrutiny, highlighted through the Parliament inquiry into Concussion in Sport.

Related: UK Parliament inquiry into brain injuries in sport

Professor Antonio Belli, the SCRUM study’s chief investigator, described the study’s findings as “game-changing”. He added: “When I see on TV a player is taken off for the medical saliva test, it will be a major achievement.”

The study found that biomarkers related to head injuries are present in saliva within minutes of an injury. Therefore, the study could expand to pitch-side tests in the future.

With blood samples previously necessary for predicting HIA results, the focus on biomarkers within saliva is certainly a breakthrough.

“Blood is much more difficult to work with and doesn’t really work for a pitch-side test,” Belli explained. “Now you have something that is non-invasive, quite easy to get, objective and accurate at the same time.”

However, researchers need to identify the relevant biomarkers in women for the same effectiveness as there currently isn’t enough data. Belli said that presented an “opportunity to bang the drum for more of this research to be done in groups not traditionally included”. 

Researchers will present the SCRUM study to World Rugby’s Law and Welfare Symposium this week. Meanwhile, Premiership Rugby has already indicated its willingness to support the next stage of research in the 2021-22 season.

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