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MicroRNAs—tiny snippets of noncoding RNA—in saliva may be able to help diagnose concussions in kids and predict their duration more accurately than patient surveys alone.
“The tools we use [currently] to diagnose and manage concussions are subjective…”
The findings could result in a more fact-based way to diagnose and treat concussion patients, says Steven Hicks, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Penn State.
“There’s been a big push recently to find more objective markers that a concussion has occurred, instead of relying simply on patient surveys.
“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.”
Concussions usually occur after a blow to the head—for example, during sports or a car accident. They can result in such symptoms as headache, nausea, confusion, amnesia, or lack of consciousness. While most concussions clear up within two weeks, about one-third of patients will experience symptoms longer.
Patients are usually advised to rest and stay away from such physical activity as sports or gym class until their symptoms subside. Hicks says that while it is important to give the brain enough time to heal, it is difficult to accurately predict how long patients should rest.
“As a general pediatrician, I often see children with concussions,” Hicks says. “The tools we use to diagnose and manage concussions are subjective—we do a physical exam and then have them answer a survey about their symptoms. Then, we make an educated guess about how long that child might continue to have a headache or feel nauseous. But those guesses aren’t evidence-based and aren’t always accurate.”
MicroRNAs are found throughout the body and affect how genes are expressed depending on different conditions, like disease or injury. The researchers suspected these biomarkers might be able to predict the presence and length of concussions.