Blood-based biomarkers of brain injury may be useful for monitoring brain health in athletes at risk for concussions. Two putative biomarkers of sport-related concussion, neurofilament light (NfL), an axonal structural protein, and S100 calcium-binding protein beta (S100B), an astrocyte-derived protein, were measured in saliva, a biofluid which can be sampled in an athletic setting without the risks and burdens associated with blood sampled by venipuncture. Samples were collected from men’s and women’s collegiate water polo players (n = 65) before and after a competitive tournament. Head impacts were measured using sensors previously evaluated for use in water polo, and video recordings were independently reviewed for the purpose of validating impacts recorded by the sensors. Athletes sustained a total of 107 head impacts, all of which were asymptomatic (i.e., no athlete was diagnosed with a concussion or more serious). Post-tournament salivary NfL was directly associated with head impact frequency (RR = 1.151, p = 0.025) and cumulative head impact magnitude (RR = 1.008, p = 0.014), while controlling for baseline salivary NfL. Change in S100B was not associated with head impact exposure (RR < 1.001, p > 0.483). These patterns suggest that repeated head impacts may cause axonal injury, even in asymptomatic athletes.
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