Brain Chemistry Predicts How Fast Kids Heal

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Doctors have been trying to figure out for years why some kids bounce right back from a mild brain injury while others have serious and lasting disabilities. A recent study suggests it might have more to do with brain chemistry than with the injury itself.

Active kids often suffer mild brain injuries like concussions. For some, recovery only takes a few days’ rest and a visit to the doctor, but for others a blow to the head can change their lives and cause substantial developmental delays.

One factor in predicting a child’s recovery is how serious the injury was to begin with – whether the person lost consciousness and how much brain swelling  happened afterward. But a new study suggests that even among similar injuries, recovery can look very different, depending on the patient’s brain chemistry.

Dr. Christopher Giza, director of the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program and a professor of pediatrics and neurosurgery at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and Mattel Children’s Hospital headed up the study, which was the first to look at both brain scans and electrical activity of the children tested. He explained:

“Just as electricians insulate electrical wires to shield their connections, the brain’s nerve fibers are encased in a fatty tissue called myelin that protects signals as they travel across the brain. . . . We suspected that trauma was damaging the myelin and slowing the brain’s ability to transmit information, interfering with patients’ capacity to learn.”

To test the theory, Giza asked 32 kids and teens, ages 8 to 19, who had suffered moderate to severe brain injuries in the last five months to complete a number of tests. Evaluators looked at the children’s processing speed, short-term memory, verbal learning, and cognitive flexibility, and compaired their responses with scans that evaluated their brain’s electrical activity.

For half of the brain injured children had heavily damaged myelin sheaths. Their brain activity was three times slower than their healthy counterparts and performed much worse on the researchers’ cognitive tests. The other half of the children still had their myelin in tact. Their brain activity was just as fast as their healthy counterparts and they scored much better on the cognitive tests – though not as well as the healthy control group.

The study suggests that doctors diagnosing children with traumatic brain injury can use electrical activity tests to predict the kids’ recovery and better tailor their treatments. Future studies will need to determine if an injured patient’s brain chemistry changes during the first year after an injury, and how that can improve a patient’s recovery.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert with Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He and his team work with the families of brain injury patients to be certain their medical needs are covered after a catastrophic auto accident. If you know someone who is facing a traumatic brain injury, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.