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How the Brain Heals

posted by SK Brain Injury    |   June 14, 2011 09:27

Healing the human brain, one of the body’s great mysteries, is a much more complicated issue and oftentimes, there’s little a doctor can do to treat damage to the brain. However, breakthroughs in clinical neuroscience are teaching us that an injured brain often has an amazing potential to heal itself. In many cases, given the proper rest and rehabilitation, an injured brain can actually grow new neurons and form new connections, which scientists call “neurogenesis” and “neuroplasticity.”

Physical brain trauma can be broken into two categories -- internal and external. Internal brain injury, such as a stroke, can be caused by blood vessel blockages or from bleeding into the brain. Traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion, is caused by some kind of external trauma and causes more diffuse brain injury. Both internal and external brain injuries may be capable of healing to varying degrees, but the process can be frustrating.

Last year, for example, I saw a 20-year-old high-performing college student suffering from a concussion after a head-to-head soccer collision resulted in loss of consciousness for less than a minute. A week after this mild traumatic brain injury, he was still having trouble paying attention in class and retaining information. He tried studying more, but that stole time away from the sleep he needed to recover. His grades dropped. He was also short-tempered with friends, and when socializing, one drink of alcohol felt like three. All of these symptoms are typical signs of a concussion.

When he had unusual headaches, I had him see a neurologist. Though his MRI was normal, his parents sensed that he wasn’t quite himself.  In effect, some of his normal brain connections had short-circuited. We developed a plan and with support from his parents, he wisely decided to take the rest of the semester off to allow his brain the time to rest and recover. He entered a traumatic brain injury program in which they emphasized healing nutrition and adequate rest, gradually adding brain stimulation exercises to work on his memory, concentration and moods.

Fortunately, this young man’s story had a good ending, as he returned the next semester and felt back to his normal functioning. But had he not taken time to properly heal, his concussion could have lingered weeks, even months, taking him on a roller coaster ride of feeling fine one day, fuzzy and disoriented the next. In any kind of TBI, the most important initial treatment is rest -- physical and cognitive -- until the brain recovers enough to start to repair itself. Common symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fogginess, memory loss, fuzzy vision, stomachaches and mood swings. More severe head injuries involving coma or blast injuries as seen in veterans, can have more severe effects and require longer, more intensive rehabilitation.

Unlike externally acquired head injuries, strokes result in more localized neurological symptoms, and damage to the most severely injured stroke areas can be permanent. The stroke patient has an enormous challenge to try to overcome both loss of function and sometimes loss of dignity. 

However, stroke patients often have a zone of partial injury that is amenable to improvement through neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. That’s where aggressive and insightful rehab comes in. Adding a whole food diet rich in the phytonutrients found in a colorful variety of vegetables, along with adequate amounts of vitamin D, B vitamins and omega-3 fish oil, will support regenerating nerve cells, giving the brain its best chance to heal. Mental outlook is also an important factor; avoiding depression is essential to optimize stroke recovery.  The best stroke rehabilitation programs look at the whole person and help the patient cope with the physical, emotional, and social aspects of loss while helping the patient find the inner will to work hard on those functions that are capable of improvement.

And with any brain injury, whether minor or catastrophic, don’t discount the power of the human connection. Above all, the social interactions and support of loving family and friends have an immeasurable potential to heal.