Why kids' recovery times vary widely after brain injury

July 14, 2015
Credit: Robert Kraft/public domain

Why do some youngsters bounce back quickly from a traumatic brain injury, while others suffer devastating side effects for years?

New UCLA/USC research suggests that damage to the fatty sheaths around the 's nerve fibers—not injury severity— may explain the difference. Published in the July 15 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, the finding identifies possible biomarkers that physicians could use to predict higher-risk who require closer monitoring.

The study is the first to combine imaging scans with recording of the brain's to reveal how damage to the protective coating around the brain's circuitry affects how quickly children and teens can process and recall information after a concussion or other head trauma.

"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," explained 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. "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 their hypothesis, the scientists assigned a series of mental tasks to 32 youngsters ages 8 to 19. Each had suffered a moderate to in the past five months. The tests evaluated the children's processing speed, short-term memory, verbal learning and cognitive flexibility.

The UCLA team recorded the kids' brains' electrical activity to test how quickly their could transmit information, and then imaged the wiring to assess its structural soundness.

When the scientists compared the patients' results to those of a matched control group of 31 healthy children, they discovered dramatic differences.

Half of the brain-injury group showed widespread damage to the myelin insulating their brain's circuitry. These patients performed 14 percent more poorly on the cognitive tests and their wiring worked three times slower than healthy children's.

Scans of the other 16 patients in the group showed their myelin was nearly intact; and their brains were able to process information as quickly as healthy children's. They performed 9 percent better on the cognitive tasks than the youngsters with more myelin damage, though not as well as the uninjured kids.

"Our research suggests that imaging the brain's wiring to evaluate both its structure and function could help predict a patient's prognosis after a ," said first author Emily Dennis, a postdoctoral researcher at USC's Keck School of Medicine.

"Our next step will be to explore how brain biomarkers change during a patient's first year of recovery when most people recapture some cognitive function," said principal investigator Robert Asarnow, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and College of Letters and Science.

Explore further: Even mild traumatic brain injury may cause brain damage

Related Stories

Even mild traumatic brain injury may cause brain damage

July 16, 2014
Even mild traumatic brain injury may cause brain damage and thinking and memory problems, according to a study published in the July 16, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Multiple sclerosis patients could benefit from brain boost

April 6, 2015
Multiple sclerosis patients could one day benefit from treatments that boost their brain function, a study suggests.

Brain activity boosts processes that promote neural connections

April 6, 2015
Brain activity affects the way the developing brain connects neurons and a study by researchers at the School of Medicine on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Children's Hospital Colorado suggests a new ...

Head injury patients show signs of faster aging in the brain

March 25, 2015
People who have suffered serious head injuries show changes in brain structure resembling those seen in older people, according to a new study.

Concussions affect children's brains even after symptoms subside

December 11, 2012
Brain changes in children who have sustained a mild traumatic brain injury, or concussion, persist for months following injury—even after the symptoms of the injury are gone, according to a study published in the December ...

Researchers clarify vasospasm incidence in children with moderate to severe TBI

February 24, 2015
Vasospasm, or severe narrowing of blood vessels, is a dangerous complication observed in children with moderate to severe traumatic brain injury. In a paper recently published in Critical Care Medicine, investigators at Nationwide ...

Recommended for you

Team constructs whole-brain map of electrical connections key to forming memories

November 22, 2017
A team of neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania has constructed the first whole-brain map of electrical connectivity in the brain based on data from nearly 300 neurosurgical patients with electrodes implanted ...

To forget or to remember? Memory depends on subtle brain signals, scientists find

November 22, 2017
The fragrance of hot pumpkin pie can bring back pleasant memories of holidays past, while the scent of an antiseptic hospital room may cause a shudder. The power of odors to activate memories both pleasing and aversive exists ...

New research suggests high-intensity exercise boosts memory

November 22, 2017
The health advantages of high-intensity exercise are widely known but new research from McMaster University points to another major benefit: better memory.

Pitch imperfect? How the brain decodes pitch may improve cochlear implants

November 22, 2017
Picture yourself with a friend in a crowded restaurant. The din of other diners, the clattering of dishes, the muffled notes of background music, the voice of your friend, not to mention your own – all compete for your ...

What if consciousness is not what drives the human mind?

November 22, 2017
Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: it's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions and experiences that we have every ...

Now you like it, now you don't: Brain stimulation can change how much we enjoy and value music

November 20, 2017
Enjoyment of music is considered a subjective experience; what one person finds gratifying, another may find irritating. Music theorists have long emphasized that although musical taste is relative, our enjoyment of music, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.