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Publication Title

Journal of Sport and Health Science





Recognizing sport-related concussion (SRC) is challenging and relies heavily on subjective symptom reports. An objective, biological marker could improve recognition and understanding of SRC. There is emerging evidence that salivary micro-ribonucleic acids (miRNAs) may serve as biomarkers of concussion; however, it remains unclear whether concussion-related miRNAs are impacted by exercise. We sought to determine whether 40 miRNAs previously implicated in concussion pathophysiology were affected by participation in a variety of contact and non-contact sports. Our goal was to refine a miRNA-based tool capable of identifying athletes with SRC without the confounding effects of exercise.


This case-control study harmonized data from concussed and non-concussed athletes recruited across 10 sites. Levels of salivary miRNAs within 455 samples from 314 individuals were measured with RNA sequencing. Within-subjects testing was used to identify and exclude miRNAs that changed with either: (a) a single episode of exercise (166 samples from 83 individuals) or (b) season-long participation in contact sports (212 samples from 106 individuals). The miRNAs that were not impacted by exercise were interrogated for SRC diagnostic utility using logistic regression (172 samples from 75 concussed and 97 non-concussed individuals).


Two miRNAs (miR-532-5p, miR-182-5p) decreased (adjusted p < 0.05) after a single episode of exercise, and 1 miRNA (miR-4510) increased only after contact sports participation. Twenty-three miRNAs changed at the end of a contact sports season. Two of these miRNAs (miR-26b-3p, miR-29c-3p) were associated (R > 0.5; adjusted p < 0.05) with the number of head impacts sustained in a single football practice. Among the 15 miRNAs not confounded by exercise or season-long contact sports participation, 11 demonstrated a significant difference (adjusted p < 0.05) between concussed and non-concussed participants, and 6 displayed moderate ability (AUC > 0.70) to identify concussion. A single ratio (miR-27a-5p/miR-30a-3p) displayed the highest accuracy (AUC = 0.810, sensitivity = 82.4%, specificity = 73.3%) for differentiating concussed and non-concussed participants. Accuracy did not differ between participants with SRC and non-SRC (z = 0.5, p = 0.60).


Salivary miRNA levels may accurately identify SRC when not confounded by exercise. Refinement of this approach in a large cohort of athletes could eventually lead to a non-invasive, sideline adjunct for SRC assessment.


This is a pre-print of an article to be published in Journal of Sport and Health Science.

This is an open access article under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.


0000-0003-0879-2308 (Campbell)

Original Publication Citation

Steven D. Hicks et al. (2021) Refinement of saliva microRNA biomarkers for sports-related concussion. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 1-11,