In recent years, numerous articles have thoroughly detailed the effects of concussions on cognitive health. This issue is of particular concern to athletes, particularly those who play sports such as football and soccer. While much of this attention is focused on the impact of serious and repeated concussions, new evidence indicates that even mild head injuries may have a lasting impact on the brain.
Scanning and Testing the Brain
Researchers from three UK-based universities – Newcastle University, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Aberdeen – recently unearthed a connection between minor head injuries and structural changes to brain tissue. Released in July 2014, the study analyzed the 53 people who had been diagnosed with either a mild or moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI). Concussions are the most common type of TBI in the United States.
In order to detect any signs of injury to the brain, this group of subjects underwent brain scans within two weeks of sustaining a TBI. In addition, the research team also took scans of 33 healthy individuals. When comparing the data from these two groups, the authors noticed that mild and moderate TBIs had changed the appearance of the brain’s white matter tissue.
In short, the fibers in these tissues had taken on a more structured look. This was in stark contrast to the damage usually observed in more severe TBIs, which cause such fibers to deteriorate noticeably. The authors suggested that these changes could be some sort of inflammatory reaction initialed by the brain, used to either shield it from additional damage or repair injured tissues.
The subjects were also asked to take tests designed to gauge their thinking and memory capabilities. In the two weeks following their injury, the TBI group scored significantly poorer than their healthier counterparts. On a verbal fluency test, for instance, these subjects scored 25 percent worse than the control group. Furthermore, the injured subjects’ performance on this test appeared to be related to the changes found on the brain scans.
A year after the original round of testing, the research team reexamined 23 of the 53 subjects who had suffered head injuries. This time around, these participants thinking and memory scores were very similar to those in the non-injury group. However, the structural differences first noted in the original scans were still largely present.
A Sign of Damage – Or Recovery?
The study appears in the August 5th issue of the journal Neurology. According to the authors, cerebral damage may explain why some patients experience only some of the symptoms associated with TBIs. Likewise, people with nagging cognitive problems might be able to use such changes as proof of head trauma.
Alternatively, other researchers suggest that these altered brain tissue could actually be a positive sign of recovery. This theory contends that the brain responds to mild/moderate TBIs by modifying its white matter, enabling it to counteract damage from injury. Though it will take additional research to settle this question, it is hoped that this study may eventually help doctors better understand how TBIs affect the brain.