Pitchside saliva test could predict concussion in men's rugby

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

A study, led by the University of Birmingham in partnership with the RFU, Premiership Rugby, and Marker Diagnostics has identified a method of using a pitchside saliva test to detect concussion in male rugby players.

The three-year study was performed on UK top flight rugby players, and paves the way for a non-invasive test which can be used to detect concussion both in rugby and, potentially, in other settings.

The University of Birmingham said that its team had previously discovered that the concentration of specific molecules in saliva changes after a traumatic brain injury. This led to the launch of the three-year study in elite rugby, which aimed to establish if these ‘biomarkers’ could be used as a diagnostic test for sport-related concussion.

1,028 players gave samples to the study, 156 of which came during head injury assessments (HIAs), both in-game, directly post-game, and then between 36 and 48 hours after the game. 

The research then showed that the test could successfully predict concussion in 94% of cases.

“This study is an important part of the portfolio of collaborative research initiatives the RFU undertakes into concussion,” said Dr Simon Kemp, Medical Services Director, The RFU.

“While still a way from having something that can be used in community rugby, it is extremely encouraging to now be able to start to develop a rapid and non-invasive test which could add real value particularly at a grassroots level of the game.

“We would like to thank all the players and clubs who participated in the study and to World Rugby for granting permission for us to extend the duration of the HIA from 10 to 13 minutes in order for the saliva samples to be captured. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without this support.

“We will now be working with World Rugby to secure further research options in two elite men’s competitions.”

Marker Diagnostics and the University of Birmingham, meanwhile, will undertake additional studies in the hope of expanding the test for use in different groups that were not included in the initial study, potentially expanding the test to include female, youth and grassroots versions of the game.