Even a single concussion could irrevocably alter the structure of the brain, a report published this week in the journal Radiology says.
The study, published Tuesday, was conducted by New York University’s department of radiology, which followed up with patients one year after a mild traumatic brain injury using an MRI.
The imaging showed there was “measurable global brain atrophy” in the patients. Brain atrophy refers to the damage caused to the brain, in this case, during the concussion.
“This is the first study that shows brain areas undergo measurable volume loss after concussion,” Dr. Yvonne Lui, assistant professor of radiology at NYU’s Langone School of Medicine, said in a press release.
“In some patients, there are structural changes to the brain after a single concussive episode,” she said.
Certain areas associated with memory, attention and anxiety showed a loss of volume, or size, in the brain after the survey was completed.
Brain injuries still mysterious
Dr. Robyn Stephens, an associate professor of the department of psychiatry at U of T who works with patients who have suffered head injuries, told Humber News she found the results of the study to be unexpected.
“I was surprised when I heard it because it sounded so conclusive, in the sense that one concussion has permanent impact, because the brain does heal,” Stephens said.
Stephens said that actual damage to the brain itself is uncommon with head injuries.
“Ordinarily, concussions impact the layers between the skull and the brain, there are various layers within that region that a bleed can occur, and that’s quite often what it is,” she said.
“It’s not as often that you actually have damage to the brain tissue, which of course is more serious.
According to statistics from the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation, brain and spinal cord injuries impact half a million people in Ontario and cost the province two-to-three billion each year.
Katie Muirhead, advocacy specialist for the Ontario Brain Injury Association said that brain injuries do more damage because doctors know so little about how they heal.
“Up to now, a lot of recommendations for managing concussions has just been rest,” Muirhead said.
“It’s not just ‘lay on the couch and watch TV,’” she said. Instead, the current approach is “No TV, no stimulus whatsoever, don’t read, don’t text, don’t talk on the phone until you’re symptom free.”
Muirhead said while this works for most, some individuals find it less successful.
“What we’re finding with some people who have post-concussion syndrome is that it’s not helpful, but they continue to be prescribed rest, so over time that takes a significant impact on your mental health,” she said.
“If I said to you ‘Sit in a dark room for a month and do nothing,’ you’re probably not going to feel that good.”
Michelle McDonald, director of operations for the Brain Injury Institute of Toronto said part of the reason treatment is difficult for neurotrauma is because there are so many variables involved.
“Every brain injury is different, there’s not one that’s the same. It depends on the severity and it depends on the location of the injury,” McDonald said.
Do helmets protect?
The NYU study was released on the heels of a consensus statement released by a number of experts in the field of brain injuries that said helmets and mouth guards may not prevent concussions.
Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, one of the authors of the statement was quick to point out that although there isn’t evidence to support that sports equipment prevent concussions, “the absence of proof is not the proof of absence,” he said.
“Helmets are actually quite good at what they’re designed to do, which is prevent skull fractures,” Meeuwisse said.
“What I’m saying is you can’t simply put a helmet on and expect not to get a concussion.”