Recovering cognitive function after a concussion

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Mild traumatic brain injuries, commonly referred to as concussions, are serious but frequently overlooked injuries caused by blunt force trauma to the head. Although most individuals are typically able to recover from concussions, those who do experience post-concussive symptoms can suffer drastic declines in their physical, mental, and cognitive health. This is especially problematic for individuals who are exposed to repetitive blows to the head over time, such as contact sport athletes or military veterans. Aside from cognitive impairment, these individuals may find themselves at increased risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) later in life.

But what can be done for individuals who currently suffer from cognitive impairment after experiencing a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI)? Recently, a double-blind randomized clinical trial sought to test whether a computerized training program, BrainHQ, could help patients recover some of their lost cognitive function.

Participants with a history of mTBI and cognitive impairment were recruited from U.S. military sites and various Veteran Affairs hospitals, and all participants were tested with nine standardized neuropsychological assessments to quantify their cognitive function. 41 participants were placed in the experimental group to undergo the BrainHQ exercises, which were aimed at increasing the speed and accuracy of neural information processing. Conversely, the remaining 42 participants were placed in an active control group, and were tasked with playing common computer games.

As the researchers hypothesized, the group that underwent the BrainHQ training showed a significant improvement in cognitive function compared to the control group. Although it may seem trivial, this represents the first study to show a scalable improvement in cognitive function using a computerized cognitive training program. As other studies have since followed suit with similar computerized programs, it is clear that there may be real utility to implementing plasticity-based, cognitive training interventions to help patients in their recovery from one or multiple concussions. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that due to their availability over the Internet, computerized cognitive training programs can be made relatively accessible and cost-effective for patient use.

Ultimately, concussions are largely preventable injuries. But in the case that they do occur, we need to be equipped with the proper resources to help recover the health of what is arguably the most important organ that we have. Hopefully, more research on computerized cognitive training programs can help move them out of the realm of the laboratory and into the hands of health practitioners, who currently have very limited options when faced with the difficult post-concussive symptoms of their patients.

Original article: Henry W Mahncke, Joseph DeGutis, Harvey Levin, Mary R Newsome, Morris D Bell, Chad Grills, Louis M French, Katherine W Sullivan, Sarah-Jane Kim, Annika Rose, Catherine Stasio, Michael M Merzenich, A randomized clinical trial of plasticity-based cognitive training in mild traumatic brain injury, Brain, Volume 144, Issue 7, July 2021, Pages 1994–2008, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awab202

Featured image source: Pixabay

Edited by: Sophie

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