Rebuilding the Brain From Concussions
There's more you can do to get your neurons firing on all cylinders.
Posted March 24, 2017
Contrary to what many believe, despite the brain’s delicacy and vulnerability to damage from concussions and repeated sub-concussive hits, the brain is also capable of healing. The brain may show signs of degeneration over time, but it can also regenerate itself given the right environment.
Although most people rarely think about their brain health, the brain changes throughout life. During embryonic development and early life, the brain changes dramatically. Neurons form many new connections, and some neurons die. From early childhood to early adulthood, the brain continues to develop until around the age of 25-years-old. However, even in the adult brain, neurons continue to form new connections, strengthen existing connections, or eliminate connections as we continue to learn.
Although concussions — a mild form of traumatic brain injury (TBI) — can have negative, long-lasting effects on the brain and resulting behaviors, more recent science shows healing brain damage caused from concussions is possible, and neurons have the capability to regenerate if the conditions are right.
For example, in 2011 the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs published a study of more than 100 active and retired football players with TBI which showed that a “lifestyle” intervention can improve brain damage and cognitive impairment. The changes included diet, nutrition, and exercise, taking omega-3 oil and other brain-centric vitamins, and participants also stopped smoking, drinking alcohol and using illegal drugs.
I’m also intrigued with the lab and clinical reports published in Neural Regeneration Research last year about a high-powered, multi-Watt near-infrared light that may regenerate damage from TBI. But until this gets a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, there are other ways to rebuild your brain.
One tool that can benefit all of the domains in the brain, except vestibular, is neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that measures brain waves in real-time to produce a signal that can be used as feedback on brain activity to teach self-regulation—or re-training the brain. Neurofeedback is commonly provided using video or sound, with positive feedback—or a reward system—for desired or optimal brain activity. It can be guided by qEEG (quantitative EEG analysis) that is usually used in clinical settings.
The analysis is displayed on a computer, as the brain goes in and out of inefficient states. The technique detects when the brain is in a more stable state, when that happens the computer will generate a reward — like a bell, a point in a game, an animation that moves — a variety of reward systems can be used. The principle is: Reward the brain, and the brain will naturally spend more time in the rewarded state. It’s a form of physiological manipulation of the neurons in the brain.
In the coming months, I will be endeavoring to continue to support the efforts to rehabilitate the brain caused from concussions while partnering with several educational and rehabilitation organizations. While we have tools to help with prevention, detection and recovery, still concussion injuries can have lasting effects on behavior.
The brain can create new cells and pathways. Like a muscle, exercising the brain’s memory functions can improve your working short- and long-term memory. Also, like a muscle, the brain’s memory capability can weaken if it gets bored and is not challenged, like going into “auto-pilot” when driving home on the same route.
So the key to exercising your brain is to provide it new challenges, new learnings, new skills particularly if it involves multiple areas of the brain like movement, and the five senses including visual, auditory, smell, taste, and touch. A few excellent examples include:
- Exercise Your Body — Movement that enhances strength and cardiovascular health also fuels your brain in various ways, giving the organ more energy.
- Get Your Groove On — Learning a new dance challenges the brain to work in several different ways, including coordinating movement with music, sequence of steps, processing visual cues, speaking the steps and then adding your own creativity to the dance while practicing all give the brain’s memory a healthy workout.
- Habla usted Espanol? — Learning a new language, and its affiliated culture, helps the brain’s memory-functioning and auditory-processing, even with learning sign language. Additionally, taking in the culinary, societal, and historical differences about a cultural gives the brain great exercise and ability to learn new things.
- Play That Tune — Learning to play a new instrument, learning to sing a new song, or even writing a new song all tap the brain to exercise it’s memory with auditory signals, visual cues, and lyric memorization.
- Pre-Game Preparation — Planning and preparation involves the brain’s executive function to think through situations and outcomes.
- The Power of the Pen — Break out a pen and paper and do some writing. Whether you write about your thoughts and experiences, stories, poetry, or write down important information you want to remember, connections get built in the brain when you think, form a sentence, write it down so you can see it, hear it, and feel it.
- Hi-Tech Virtual Brain Gyms — Computerized online brain training tools are available, and typically include a self-assessment that measures and identifies your brain’s strengths and weaknesses and then provides correlating exercises to train those specific areas.
- Low-Tech Brain Games — Crossword puzzles, word-finding games, Scrabble™, and other word games and puzzles give the brain a workout. Learning and playing Chess is an excellent game for developing forethought, decision-making, and strategy. But you can also benefit from going to the local library or educational store and picking up some elementary or high school workbooks with various forms of topics, reading, and writing exercises, which is great stimulation for the brain.
Don’t Snooze Past This
The human brain and body require rest, whether they are injured or not. Sleep doesn’t get the attention it deserves, until you wake up after a poor night’s sleep feeling groggy and having slow reaction times, clouded judgment, blurry vision, and a bad attitude—all signs of a tired brain. String a few days in a row with lack of sleep and you feel more like a monster than a human being.
The damaged brain relies on sleep to restore balance during the healing process. A lack of enough quality sleep can lead to a host of physiological and psychological problems, even dangerous consequences if you feel fatigue while behind the wheel.
- Noteworthy: The National Sleep Foundation estimates 71,000 injuries and 5,500 deaths occur per year due to drivers who reported being drowsy.
Neurologist Harry Kerasidis, M.D. and co-founder of XLNTbrain Sport™, an online and mobile-based sports concussion system, has thousands of athletes, athletic trainers and medical personnel following his protocols for the return-to-play and return-to-learn medical clearance. Dr. Kerasidis also founded Chesapeake Neurology Associates, based in Prince Frederick, Maryland. Through this practice, he also treats other cognitive and behavioral disorders including memory loss, sleep deprivation, ADD, dementia, Alzheimer's, and traumatic brain injury. At Calvert Memorial Hospital, Dr. Kerasidis serves as the Medical Director for the Center for Neuroscience, the hospital’s Sleep Disorders Center and Stroke Center. His new book, “Concussionology: Redefining Sports Concussion Management” published December 2015.