Thursday, January 4, 2024

SwRI, UTSA collaborate to detect traumatic brain injury through breath analysis

SwRI, UTSA collaborate to detect traumatic brain injury through breath analysis

SEPTEMBER 26, 2023 — Researchers from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and UTSA are developing techniques to detect traumatic brain injury (TBI) by analyzing breath for specific biomarkers. The project, led by SwRI’s Mark Libardoni and UTSA’s Marzieh Memar and 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 the UTSA 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.

Joanna Quintanilla

UTSA Today is produced by University Strategic Communications,
the official news source
of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

Send your feedback to

UTSA Today is produced by University Communications and Marketing, the official news source of The University of Texas at San Antonio. Send your feedback to Keep up-to-date on UTSA news by visiting UTSA Today. Connect with UTSA online at Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram.



University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

UTSA’s Mission

The University of Texas at San Antonio is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge through research and discovery, teaching and learning, community engagement and public service. As an institution of access and excellence, UTSA embraces multicultural traditions and serves as a center for intellectual and creative resources as well as a catalyst for socioeconomic development and the commercialization of intellectual property - for Texas, the nation and the world.

UTSA’s Vision

To be a premier public research university, providing access to educational excellence and preparing citizen leaders for the global environment.

UTSA’s Core Values

We encourage an environment of dialogue and discovery, where integrity, excellence, inclusiveness, respect, collaboration and innovation are fostered.

UTSA’S Destinations

UTSA is a proud Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) as designated by the U.S. Department of Education .

Our Commitment to Inclusivity

The University of Texas at San Antonio, a Hispanic Serving Institution situated in a global city that has been a crossroads of peoples and cultures for centuries, values diversity and inclusion in all aspects of university life. As an institution expressly founded to advance the education of Mexican Americans and other underserved communities, our university is committed to promoting access for all. UTSA, a premier public research university, fosters academic excellence through a community of dialogue, discovery and innovation that embraces the uniqueness of each voice.