Researchers Analyze Breath to Detect Traumatic Brain Injury

Using breath analysis as a diagnostic tool is still fairly new.

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Researchers from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) are developing techniques to detect traumatic brain injury (TBI) 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 $125,000 grant from the Connecting through Research Partnerships (Connect) program.

Breath analysis is performed by analyzing exhaled breath for specific biomarkers, such as metabolites, proteins and cytokines, that are associated with diseases or human performance, such as athletic performance and cognitive function.

“Using breath analysis as a diagnostic tool is still fairly new,” Libardoni said. “Recent advances in sampling methodologies, analytical hardware and advanced data processing programs have allowed breath analysis to become a more routine analytical tool for researchers.”

Breath analysis has been used to diagnose cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease but has not yet been explored as a noninvasive method of diagnosing traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Roughly 50 million cases of traumatic brain injury occur each year, which can affect human performance and quality of life, especially if left undiagnosed and untreated. Repeated subconcussive exposures, which are impacts that don’t meet the threshold for a concussive impact, can be dangerous as well, leading to a higher risk of cognitive decline and neurogenerative diseases.

“Ninety percent of TBIs are concussions that initially have minor symptoms or none at all, with no observable pathology on neuroimages. This makes their diagnoses difficult,” Memar said. “Diagnosing these injuries is critical to quantifying this risk. Using noninvasive breath analyses to identify biomarkers for TBIs could allow early diagnosis and routine assessment of brain damage, especially in sports and military settings where TBI rates are high.”

SwRI and UTSA will utilize unique experimental designs developed by Memar and Seidi that collect breath samples before and after brain disruption or damage for different brain severities. A gas sampling system (GSS) that Libardoni developed will collect and process the exhaled breath samples, isolating chemical metabolites for identification by a gas chromatograph coupled to a mass spectrometer. This device was developed initially to sample and analyze gases in the atmospheres of other worlds such as Enceladus, Europa and the Moon. It can also be used to monitor the spacecraft interior atmosphere and biomarkers in astronauts’ breath.

“A few years ago, when Dr. Seidi and I initially came up with the idea to use breath to diagnose TBI, we found that not many organizations can analyze breath,” Memar said. “UTSA’s experimental capabilities and SwRI’s analytical techniques will empower us to conduct this transformative research. It’s very fortunate that SwRI and UTSA are so close, allowing us to collaborate on this work.

Libardoni, Memar and Seidi believe their findings could ultimately be used in sports and military settings to immediately identify TBIs while reducing the growing burden of TBI diagnosis and management on the healthcare system.

“I’ve long envisioned that breath analysis will be used as a routine medical tool,” Libardoni said. “Breath analysis is an ideal diagnostic tool because it’s so sensitive and non-invasive. Human breath contains hundreds to thousands of volatile organic compounds and provides a very rich environment for comparing healthy and diseased states in individuals. This project could take it to the next level and show that analyzing exhaled breath is a very accurate and precise method to detect TBI.”

SwRI’s Executive Office and UTSA’s Office of the Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise sponsor the Connect program, which offers grant opportunities to enhance greater scientific collaboration between the two institutions.

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