When a skull slams into a hard surface, damage control typically happens in a rush. Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) often require immediate surgery, and even during the slow recovery process an urgent question lingers: How much time do I have before permanent brain damage sets in?
Previously, doctors believed that the maximum window for recovery was about a year after the injury occurred. But new research suggests the TBI-recovery timeline is longer than previously thought, giving injured athletes more opportunity to restore cognitive functions. Scientists have found that specific types of brain training can help improve brain performance years after injury.
People younger than 20 tend to recover skills and knowledge even after severe brain injuries, says Dr. Lori Cook, study author and director of the Center for Brain Health's pediatric brain injury programs. But learning new things may not come as easily.
“For particularly young children, the long-term effects may not even be evident until later developmental stages when higher-level skills are being called upon,” Cook says.
Researchers studied 20 participants between the ages of 12 and 20 who had experienced a TBI at least six months prior to the study. All participants had trouble extracting meaning from information—or gist-reasoning deficits. Test participants were split into two groups, one of which focused on memory training. The other went through gist-reasoning training, which involves comprehending and conveying abstract ideas.
The researchers developed a new training program for this kind of thinking, which teaches students to take in information anywhere from textbooks to song lyrics and gain higher-level meaning from it. Each participant went through eight sessions of training in a month, completing assessments before and after training.
Ultimately, the participants who went through gist-reasoning training fared much better. They showed marked gains in their ability to extract meaning and remember facts, and also showed improvements in areas like memory and the ability to filter out irrelevant information.
Cook notes that the sample size in the study is small. Her team is currently looking into setting up a larger trial, maybe by conducting this type of training via Skype. However, she’s pleased with the results and hopes
“Having a clear process for handling traumatic brain injuries increases the likelihood of recovery and improvement,” Cook says. And in the future, gist-reasoning training might be a key part of the process.