Understanding Brain Injuries and How to Help Prevent Them

doctor looking at x-ray with patient in room

Of all the organs in the human body, the brain is probably the most important, distinguishing us from all other species. It controls the functions of the body, allowing us to think, feel, move, communicate, and remember.

The brain is a complex organ whose many parts include the cranium, the cerebrum, the brain stem and the cerebellum.
Dr. Marc Otten, Director of Columbia Neurosurgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital, explains, “The average brain has around 80 billion neurons (nerve cells that are the building blocks of the nervous system), and these are connected to each other and to other organs. The connections, or synapses, between them, are even more numerous and intricate.”

Adding to its complexity, the brain sends signals in the form of electrical impulses, which depend on constant chemical reactions all working in concert with each other. “The brain exists in an exquisitely regulated environment, and any impact can disrupt these processes, causing physical or behavioral changes,” says Dr. Otten.

Causes & effects

There are many ways to classify brain injury. Three major factors are the magnitude of energy causing the injury, the context, and the parts of the brain that are damaged.

“There is a big difference between a high-energy impact that comes from a bullet or car accident, and one from lower energy, like two people, bumping heads,” says Dr. Otten.  A severe impact can cause a loss in consciousness or even death. 

According to Dr. Otten, the brain can also suffer from repetitive, sub-concussive exposures, such as from football tackles or from punches during a boxing match. “These are not isolated, single events, but rather, smaller impacts that can lead to changes in the brain’s neurophysiology — which can result in symptoms and injury. Mild traumatic brain injuries or concussions can cause headache, dizziness, memory difficulties and even depression.”  

Lastly, an individual might suffer from focal weakness, vision loss or speech difficulty, depending on where the damage occurs. Depending on the part of the brain affected and its severity, rehabilitation may restore some or all function.

Treatments & prevention

“Treatment options represent an active area of research. Some studies are looking for ways to manage the symptoms.  For example, known medications are being studied to manage mental fatigue, depression and memory trouble,” Dr. Otten says. “There is not much effective treatment for concussion at this point.”

Some brain injuries can be prevented, particularly as they relate to sports. The governing bodies for several sports organizations have been changing the rules to prevent concussions. The U.S. Soccer Federation, for example, now prohibits players under the age of 11 from heading the ball. “Unfortunately, that won’t stop all the head-to-head collisions, but it is important that rules are in place to protect the players,” notes Dr. Otten. 

Technology has also played a huge role — with the development of such items as helmets for sports, and seatbelts and airbags for cars — to help avoid accidents and minimize head injuries when they do occur.

“We have come a long way,” concludes Dr. Otten. “Prevention of brain injury is critical, but we will never prevent them all. So, we are working hard to find ways for better diagnosis and treatment.”

To learn more about brain injuries and treatments, visit nyp.org/neuro. To find a neurologic specialist, call 877-NYP-WELL.