Traumatic Brain Injuries: Helpless to Hopeful
Traumatic brain injuries, often referred to as TBI, have gained major traction in the field of neuroscience over the past couple years, and for obvious reasons. The name itself suggests that something has gone horrible awry with our BRAIN – you know, the mass of cells inside our skulls responsible for telling our heart to pump and our muscles to contract, the organ that controls all of our cognitive abilities and complex processing, that space between our ears that has been associated with creating the somewhat vague concept of our mind? It’s not surprising that neuroscientists have deemed it important to begin researching ways to at least partially remedy the potentially devastating effects of an injury to our most central organ.
Previous TBI research hasn’t exactly led to the most uplifting results. While research has advanced enough for us to be able to visualize TBIs and generally understand the symptomology of TBI, the field has lagged in suggesting potential therapies for patients with this condition. The broad view has always been that patients with TBI improve up to a certain point, and then they plateau, staying at a consistently impaired state – until now.
Recently, two new articles have been published proving ways to improve the cognitive function and overall quality of life of patients suffering from TBI. First, experiments conducted by a team of researchers led by Lesley S. Miller at Toronto Rehab have discovered the beneficial effects of an enriched environment on the atrophy (shrinkage) of the brain tissue after TBI. Often times with TBI patients have a diminished quality of life, as they are not stimulated mentally or physically after their injury. However, this study shows that more environmental stimulation is exactly what a TBI patient needs. In the study, all 25 patients showed a positive response to environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment could mean a bunch of things, including socializing, solving puzzles, or physical activity. But regardless of the form of enrichment, patients with increased enrichment showed significantly less shrinkage of the hippocampus than patients without an enriched environment.
While the Miller experiment was tested in humans and is absolutely applicable to humans immediately, another study came out that showed that mild hypothermia is actually beneficial for neuron survival after TBI in rats. In this experiment, conducted at the Institute of Traumatic Brain Injury and Neuroscience in Tianjin, China, rats treated with mild hypothermia had substantially less neuronal death and significantly improved scores on behavioral tests compared to the normothermia group. Also, the slight hypothermia reduced the presence of proteins like amyloid beta in the brain, which is known to be associated with neurodegenerative disorders.
These two pieces of news are incredibly exciting for the field of neuroscience. To think that we are finally understanding the pathology of TBI enough to actually do something about it completely changes the prognosis for patients suffering from this condition. While obviously there may be more thorough investigation necessary for studies like the hypothermia one (i.e. experiment in human models), studies like the one at Toronto Rehab give immediate hope to patients of TBI and their families. Current research is showing us that we don’t have to accept TBI’s for what they are and simply learn to cope with them; instead we can work to counteract the damaging results. Hopefully, this is only the tip of the iceberg and neuroscientists will continue to discover and produce viable remedies for people who have been without many options for far too long.
Environmental Enrichment: Countering TBI – Medical News Today
Original Research Article – The Frontiers of Human Neuroscience
Mild Hypothermia Study – Medical News Today
Original Research Article – The Institute for Traumatic Brain Injury