Rochester doctors hope new saliva tests swiftly diagnose concussions

Austin Billings was throwing the football around with his dad in the backyard when he fell and hit the back of his head. It wasn't until the next day that Austin started to feel a little off.

“I said I felt a little dizzy and had a little headache. We just thought I wasn't feeling good and was just tired. Just maybe had a little flu," said Austin Billings.

Austin's mother Alicia said she took him to the pediatrician, who recommended rest. But the trips to the school nurse, headaches and dizziness continued, so they sought more help. 

“It took them a while to figure out he had a concussion. We didn't have a certain situation that said ‘geez, he really hit his head.’ He passed out. He threw up. My husband and I finally said this is a concussion, Resting isn't working. What are our other options?” said Alicia Billings.

That's when they were connected to Rochester Regional's Neuroscience Unit, and started Physical Therapy. Alicia says in a day, Austin's headaches and dizziness went away.

Austin's physical therapist says studies show rest is important, but so are physical exercises for the inner ear and balance. 

“Those patients who get vestibular therapy and actually steadily but surely increase the activity get better much quicker,” said Kelly Schauf, physical therapist.

Like in Austin's case, it can be challenging to quickly and definitively diagnose a concussion. That's why researchers all over the world, and in Rochester, are working to change that.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Anthony Petraglia is working with Syracuse-based Quadrant Biosciences to develop a fast and easy way to identify a concussion.

The saliva swab test, that today is analyzed in-lab, but could become even more streamlined in the future, looks for microRNA that is released in the saliva when a child or adult suffers a concussion. And Dr. Petraglia says that RNA can also detect what symptoms that person will develop. 

“Now you're starting to talk about tailoring treatment early on if you can know what kinds of symptoms they're going to have. Not everybody is going to need a cognitive approach. So maybe somebody's going to have really heavy emotional type symptoms so you can get them really plugged in early on,” said Petraglia.

Dr. Petraglia says the saliva swab research tests in Rochester should start soon.

Meanwhile, Austin is back to everything he loves to do, getting ready for school and sports with protective gear, and mom and dad's protective eyes.

“We know now that's it's not a major blow to the head that causes a concussion. We just pay attention,” said Alicia Billings.

Spectrum customers get full access
to all our video, including our live stream.