Paediatricians are often limited in how accurately they can advise families about how long a child may suffer concussion symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, and trouble concentrating that can interfere with school and other activities.

New research presented at the 2017 Paediatric Academic Societies Meeting, however, suggests a simple saliva test may yield more answers.

Micro ribonucleic acids (miRNAs) are genetic molecules, chiefly found within cells, that help regulate protein production. Previous studies have found altered miRNA levels in the saliva of children with mild concussions. This mirrored similar miRNA changes in cerebrospinal fluid, which cushions the brain and spinal cord, of patients with severe brain injury.

Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine studied 50 children between the ages of seven and 18 years with mild traumatic brain injury. Spit samples were collected and tested for miRNA levels. In addition, concussion symptoms were evaluated through parent and child Sports Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT-3) surveys, a standardised tool commonly used to evaluate injured children for concussion and to guide clinical decision-making.

The surveys were taken within 14 days of injury and again four weeks post-concussion. The 29 children with prolonged concussion symptoms had higher scores for headaches, fatigue and difficulties concentrating.

Steven Hicks, MD, PhD, FAAP, lead author of the study, said that the salivary miRNA levels were significantly more effective than evaluations using SCAT-3 survey in predicting which children would continue to experience headaches, fatigue, concentration difficulties and other concussion symptoms that lasted longer than four weeks. Results showed the standard survey to be less than 70 per cent accurate in identifying children who would have prolonged concussion symptoms, he said. In comparison, he said, miRNA in saliva correctly predicted whether concussion symptoms would remain present for at least a month nearly 90 per cent of the time.

‘We believe that saliva-based RNA testing holds great promise as an accurate and non-invasive method for evaluating pediatric concussions and giving patients and families a more solid prognosis,’ Dr Hicks explained.

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