Treating sports concussions and traumatic brain injuries

Young athletes are particularly susceptible to long-term brain damage because their brains are still developing.

by Stephanie Reese — 

Did Lou Gehrig really have Lou Gehrig’s disease? A new study suggests that repeated concussions from playing sports can cause a motor-neuron disorder with symptoms that mimic amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS (as Lou Gehrig’s disease is also called). Both conditions include weakness or numbness in the limbs, uncontrollable muscle twitching and gradual loss of movement.

Researchers examined the brains and spinal cords of 12 deceased athletes thought to have died of ALS and of whom all had a history of multiple concussions. Researchers found that the athletes may actually have had chronic traumatic encephalomyopathy, a degenerative brain condition linked to head trauma. Two distinct proteins distinguish this condition from ALS, according to findings published in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology last August.

A recent report in Pediatrics found that from 1997 to 2007, the number of emergency room visits for concussions in 8- to 19-year-olds at least doubled. Young athletes are particularly susceptible to long-term brain damage because their brains are still developing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 50,000 adults and 2,680 children die of these kinds of traumatic brain injuries every year.

Sometimes the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) may not appear until days or weeks after the injury. Symptoms range from sleepiness and dizziness to changes in mood and difficulty making decisions. Traumatic brain injuries disrupt connections in the neural circuitry, which can create abnormal brain activity. Counseling is difficult because patients cannot track everything that is being said, and they do not remember conversations. TBI can trigger epilepsy and increase the risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders that become more prevalent with age.

The damaged areas are unlikely to repair themselves on their own. Unlike in Lou Gehrig’s day, we now know that brand new pathways can be created to take the place of the damaged ones with a form of brain training called hemoencephalography, or HEG for short.

Head injury and other forms of brain dysfunction often mean a slowing of activity in the brain’s frontal lobes. This is the area in charge of executive function: planning ahead, decision-making, judgment, language and other important cognitive functions. HEG uses near-infrared light to measure activity in the frontal lobes by measuring the oxygenation in the blood.

A person then can learn how to use computer-assisted biofeedback exercises to increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. As oxygenation increases, new neural connections are made all over the brain and brainstem. HEG can be extremely effective, often in half the time it takes older EEG-based systems (the kind with sticky electrodes) to work.

This kind of non-drug program can bring order from chaos in the brain. The effects are long-lasting.

 

Stephanie Reese, Ph.D., can be reached at The Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine in Scottsdale, Ariz., the only medical clinic in the U.S. that offers BrainAdvantage, a breakthrough in simplicity and effectiveness for brain training. 480-240-2600 or www.ArizonaAdvancedMedicine.com.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 29, Number 5, Oct/Nov 2010.

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