A soccer, lacrosse or football player is knocked down with a head injury during a game or practice session. Minutes later, a trainer swabs the inside of the injured player’s mouth to obtain a saliva sample that can quickly determine whether the player has sustained a concussion. 

The Chuck Noll Foundation for Brain Injury Research is funding research to make such simple tests available to professional, college, high school and even younger athletes as part of its mission to reduce the impact of sports-related head injuries. 

Named for the coach who presided over the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl-winning dynasty of the 1970s, the foundation recently received $350,000 in funding and created the Joseph C. Maroon Fund to focus on research that includes using biomarkers found in blood and saliva to detect brain injuries. 

Steelers coach Chuck Noll in black and white.

Coach Chuck Noll. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Dr. Maroon retired last year as the longtime neurosurgeon for the Steelers but remains a team consultant. 

In the 1990s, at Noll’s urging, Dr. Maroon and other researchers developed a baseline test to assess the cognitive effects of concussions.

That research led to the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test (ImPACT) – an FDA-approved tool developed at UPMC’s Center for Sports Medicine that is now a worldwide standard for determining when players can safely return to play after sustaining concussions.

Dr. Maroon, who chairs the Noll Foundation’s National Science Advisory Committee, said the ImPACT test has been administered to 23 million athletes ranging from children as young as 5 years old to NFL players.

Scientists say concussions can be tough to diagnose accurately because medical professionals rely so heavily on patients reporting their own symptoms, including headaches and dizziness, that can disappear quickly or develop weeks later. 

Among the research that boosts the case for saliva-based testing is a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2021 that involved 1,000-plus male rugby players.

That study, which reports that salivary glands are connected directly to the brain by nerves, found saliva tests detected concussions in the participants with 94% accuracy. 

Once developed and made widely available, blood or saliva tests used to detect concussions, Dr. Maroon says, could be “kind of like a pregnancy test — they would indicate brain disruption immediately.”

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II looks onto the field.

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II is also chairman of the Chuck Noll Foundation for Brain Injury Research. Photo by Karl Roser / Pittsburgh Steelers.

Art Rooney II, president of the Steelers and chairman of the Noll Foundation, says such tests are part of the foundation’s shorter-term goals “to try and come up with a quicker and a simpler way to diagnose a concussion.”

The Maroon Fund, he adds, is a “companion fund” to the Noll Foundation which “fits directly into the mission of the foundation: to fund research into sports-related brain injuries.”

The new funding to help establish the Maroon Fund includes $250,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and $100,000 from Highmark Health.

Since its launch in 2016 with $1 million in seed funding from the Steelers, the Noll Foundation has raised close to $5 million and made 18 grants totaling $2.2 million. 

Grants include funding for a National Sports Brain Bank at Pitt where retired Steelers who wish to participate will be assessed for trauma exposure and evaluated for cognitive performance; a research project at West Virginia University that studies concussion recovery and protection against future concussions; and a pilot study by researchers at Allegheny Health Network to assess the use of non-invasive, drug-free neurostimulation in patients with traumatic brain injuries. 

Other grants have funded projects that involve research done at Carnegie Mellon, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

Dr. Maroon says the foundation aims to broaden its outreach to more research centers and has received proposals from Penn State, Indiana University and the National Institutes of Health. 

“Investing in the kind of research funded by the Chuck Noll Foundation not only will have a positive impact on athletes’ brain health, but on all people suffering from traumatic brain injuries,” Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, said in a statement. 

“Brain health is vital for all of us,” Kenya Boswell, senior vice president of community affairs for Highmark, said in a statement. “We are pleased to support research that keeps our young athletes healthy and playing their best.”