Though the link is poorly understood, brain injuries and an increase in problems with sleep often go hand-in-hand. Now, a new study suggests improvements in sleep problems could be a useful metric for assessing how far along a person’s recovery from a brain injury is.
According to a report published in the journal Neurology, recovery from TBI progresses at the same speed as an injured person’s sleep quality improves.
“These results suggest that monitoring a person’s sleep-wake cycle may be a useful tool for assessing their recovery after traumatic brain injury,” said study author Nadia Gosselin. She’s an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Montreal.
“We found that when someone sustained a brain injury and had not recovered a certain level of consciousness to keep them awake and aware of their surroundings, they were not able to generate a good sleep-wake cycle. But as they recovered, their quality of sleep improved,” Gosselin said in a news release from the American Academy of Neurology.
For the study, the researchers examined 30 patients between the ages of 17 and 58 who had been hospitalized for brain injuries. Most participants were injured in car accidents and were comatose when arriving at the hospital.
Starting two to four weeks after the patient was injured, the team tested the patient’s levels of consciousness and cognitive function. The participants were also equipped with devices worn on their wrists to track when they were sleeping and awake.
The expectation of the researchers was that improvements in sleep patterns would precede improvements in cognition and awareness, but they were surprised to see that wasn’t the case. Instead, both appeared to improve simultaneously.
While the findings may suggest sleep is an essential part in healing from a moderate-to-severe TBI, there are some questions raised by the report. For instance, whether improvements in sleep are directly contributing to improvements in cognition and healing, or if sleep simply allowed them to perform better on the tests of brain function.
Gosselin says the team hopes to clarify that with future studies, but firmly believes restoring sleep functions aids in the recovery process following a brain injury.
“I think bad sleep can have bad consequences for brain recovery,” she says.