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San Antonio scientists want to use breath to detect traumatic brain injury


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Traumatic brain injury is often difficult to detect because the symptoms can be minor or even nonexistent. When missed, these types of injuries — commonly called concussions — pose risks to physical, cognitive and emotional health.

Researchers from Southwest Research Institute and The University of Texas at San Antonio are developing techniques to detect traumatic brain injury by analyzing breath for specific biomarkers. The project, led by SwRI’s Dr. Mark Libardoni and UTSA’s Dr. Marzieh Memar and Dr. Morteza Seidi, is supported by a grant from the Connecting through Research Partnerships (Connect) program.

“Breath is very complex,” Libardoni says. “It can contain upwards of 1,500 organic compounds. We see a very rich and very complex organic spectrum of biological and environmental compounds that the body is exhaling.”

Breath analysis is a fairly new diagnostic tool. By analyzing the unique chemical fingerprint of a patient's breath, healthcare professionals can not only identify diseases at an earlier, more treatable stage but also tailor treatment plans with greater precision. Breath contains many more compounds than other biofluids like blood and saliva, and is non-invasive to collect.

Researchers have already used breath analysis to detect a wide variety of ailments, from respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to metabolic disorders such as diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Currently, mild traumatic brain injury is diagnosed based on self-reported symptoms and cognitive tests. But, as Memar points out, “Not everyone knows the details of the symptoms — and there may be motivation to withhold information from medical providers, especially among young athletes who want to stay on the field.”

She adds that reinjury is a real threat in TBI cases.

“When they don't diagnose TBI on time, the brain is more susceptible to the next injury,” Memar explained. “So that worsens the pathology, the memory impairment, the cognitive decline, or even can lead to neurodegenerative disease.”

The research team is now trying to isolate the chemical compounds that correspond with various stages of TBI.

“Once we've positively identified the biomarkers that are specific to TBI, or different levels of TBI, then it becomes a very fast and routine analysis similar to a breath test for alcohol.”

Libardoni says that breath analyses are expensive to perform and confined to a lab setting for the moment. But before long, he expects to see the technology in use in places like the NFL. Memar says she believes breath analysis could eventually be used in sports medicine, in the military, and other environments where head injuries are likely to occur.

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.