George Mason researchers think saliva might unlock concussions

Researchers have tried to diagnose concussions with cognitive tests, eyesight tests and balance tests. But would you believe a spit test?

The Fairfax County (Va.) Times reported on two researchers who are exploring a new way of diagnosing concussions -- by using saliva.

It happens once a week to the 12- and 13-year-old kids playing for the Jets, an A-League football team in the Central Loudoun Youth Football League. Athletic trainers collect the players' saliva samples and send them to Dr. Shane Caswell, a George Mason (University) professor and pioneer of the world's first salivary biobank designed for concussion research in athletes. Caswell stores the saliva in a freezer he dubs the "spit repository," from which he eventually extracts the samples and runs them through sophisticated machinery to determine changes in protein variance that no other technique has been able to identify. Comparing each kid's spit samples to previous submissions, he hopes to uncover a handful of proteins that can detect concussions.

Working alongside Caswell is another Mason professor, Dr. Chip Petricoin. Long accustomed to studying protein biomarkers for cancer research, Petricoin never imagined he'd wind up plying his trade for studies on traumatic brain injury and concussions. The seed was planted six years ago, when he was called up to Fort Detrick to conduct a site review for a company that had been given a grant from the army to do concussion research. Petricoin admired their efforts, but he realized that his own work with cancer biomarkers -- a common practice conducted by scientists all over the world -- could reap significant benefits for the concussion research that remained in its nascent stages.

The George Mason professors are comparing the preseason samples to the samples from kids who suffered head injuries. They think the change in saliva proteins after a concussion opens a door that no one has looked into before.

They have used their research so far to apply for a grant through the Head Health Challenge, a combined effort of the NFL and General Electric.

The Jets' head coach, Rob Scola, says his team has so far adapted nicely to the study. George Mason sends a certified athletic trainer to the field to provide care and to collect data on hits the players endure. The trainer tapes every game and practice, something that allows coaches to see what they're doing right and wrong in their efforts to teach proper heads-up tackling techniques. Players also wear helmets with sensors that detect the force and location of impacts sustained in practices and games.

It's all part of an effort to determine what measures coaches should take to minimize players' risk of head trauma on the football field, where the rate of brain injuries is higher than in any other youth sport.

"It's very hard to get information from a very small team in a very small league and then extrapolate that," Scola said. "I think that as Mason starts to expand the study, I think there will be some really interesting pieces of information that come from that, which I believe can be helpful to the league and football as a whole. I think it's a phenomenal first step."

Part of the project's appeal lies in its lack of hassle. Biomarker work has traditionally come from blood and spinal fluid samples, which are rooted in far more invasive processes than simply spitting in a cup.

"If I were to go out on the field and say, 'Hold on a second. I want to take your child's blood or their cerebral spinal fluid.' That's game over. We can't move forward," Caswell said. "This is a non-invasive tool that is rapidly deployable. There's no threat of infection, it's easily done and it provides a great deal of information."

-- Bill Bradley, contributing editor