In one five-year period, college athletes suffered more than 10,000 concussions — one-third of them while playing football. But an unusual team-up has recently brought a new kind of concussion test one step closer.
Extracellular small RNAs — tiny molecules that float in the spaces between cells — are biomarkers, one of many substances that promise to transform medicine by “biologically marking” diseases — or injuries, like concussions. But before researchers can use exRNA to spot a problem, they need to know what normal levels look like.
To get its baseline, the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), sequenced exRNA in the plasma, urine and saliva of 55 male athletes at Arizona State University.
TGen’s Matt Huentelman was a lead author on the study.
“The next step is to take some of this baseline data and compare it to individuals we know who have had a bona-fide concussion,” Huentelman said.
Yale University, Barrow Neurological Institute, A.T. Still University, Banner Health and Arizona State University Sports Medicine also collaborated on the study, which appeared in the March 17 edition of Scientific Reports.
Many questions remain, including why exRNA expression profiles differ among bodily fluid types, so further refinement of methods and metrics must take place before exRNA testing moves from the lab bench to the football bench — assuming exRNA changes occur quickly enough to make sideline diagnoses possible, which remains unknown.
Huentelman says the next step will involve comparing their exRNA dataset with helmet sensor data detailing the number, intensity and direction of head impacts.
“We’re trying to relate the two datasets, because the individuals in this dataset are active players, so they’re involved in many head impacts every single day, in practice and in game. They don’t result in bona fide concussions, but we’re interested in understanding if they’re changing their brain at all and if they look similar to the concussion individuals.”
That wireless sensor data was gathered by helmet company Riddell’s Sideline Response System during the ASU football team’s 2013-16 games and practices.
“The sensor’s actually quantitative, so we can wrap that information around what we see in the blood and the urine and saliva,” said Huentelman.
The hope is that such research will reveal correlations between biomarkers and concussions.