Environmental Enrichment Can Slow Brain Shrinkage From TBI

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fMRI Brain Scan

Source: Nathanial Burton-Bradford

For the first time ever, scientists have proven exactly what anecdotes from doctors and patients alike have long suggested: rehabilitation and stimulation work to help treat traumatic brain injury.

The researchers from Toronto Rehab published a paper titled “Environmental enrichment may protect against hippocampal atrophy in the chronic stages of traumatic brain injury,” which gives scientific evidence that people with moderate-severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), atrophy of the brain can be countered with participation in environmental enrichment, or increased physical, social, and cognitive stimulation.

The study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, relies on an entirely new way of understanding traumatic brain injury. Lead investigator and senior scientist and clinical neuropsychologist, Robin Green, has made recent findings implying that moderate-severe TBI may be a progressive neurological disorder. If that is the case it could potentially rewrite the book on how we understand moderate-severe TBI.

“The conventional wisdom about moderate-serious TBI is that there is neurological damage to the brain that manifests over the course of hours and days. Then, after a period of recovery – months to years – a plateau is reached where there are no further changes to the brain,” says Green.

Green’s research suggests otherwise, finding evidence via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which shows ongoing damage or atrophy in the brains of many people with moderate-severe TBI. He explains:

What we believe is going on, is that after a serious brain injury, damaged tissue disconnects the healthy areas of the brain. Those healthy areas are under stimulated and, over time, deteriorate. Many people with moderate-severe TBI are commonly unable to continue the same level of engagement in their work, school or social lives than they were before the injury. This decrease in environmental stimulation puts them at a greater risk of increased atrophy in the chronic stages of their brain injury.

All participants in the study showed a positive reaction to environmental enrichment. The patients who reported greater amounts of environmental enrichment, such as reading, problem solving, puzzles, and socializing, showed less shrinkage of the hippocampus five months after their injury.

“Our focus now is how to incorporate environmental enrichment into long-term rehabilitation. We are exploring the key ingredients to environmental enrichment for off-setting atrophy, and also the benefits of combining environmental enrichment with other therapies,” explained Green.

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