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Brain Awareness Week, which takes place from March 16 to 22, is a global campaign to raise awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research and foster public enthusiasm for brain research. Founded in 1995 by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, Brain Awareness Week sees partner organizations from around the world take part in lectures, panel discussions, neuroscience lab tours and week-long celebrations in support of advancing brain research.

This year, we note that significant progress has been made in many fields of brain research, including concussions and traumatic brain injuries. Technological advancements have also enhanced our understanding of the brain, enabling more accessible treatment options for people experiencing neurological issues.

As we move into Brain Awareness Week, it is important to recognize the incredible accomplishments of brain researchers, academics, clinicians and others who have contributed to our understanding of the brain.

CONCUSSIONS:

Significant advancements have been made in the field of concussion research and treatment options. Two large-scale studies conducted by University of California, San Francisco researchers looked at over 300,000 military veterans and found that a single concussion can lead to increased risk of Parkinson’s disease and dementia.[1] In fact, the risk of dementia was found to more than double following concussion.

The association between concussions and sports has also been subject to rigorous debate over the past few years with the emergence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). While repeated head injuries are thought to be a main risk factor for developing CTE, brain researchers are still exploring whether repeated concussions are a direct cause.[2]

Recent studies are also challenging the notion that prolonged rest is a viable treatment option for concussions. Emerging data supports the fact that aerobic exercises help to normalize the cerebrovascular system, acting as “medicine” for patients with concussion and post-concussive symptoms.[3] 

TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURIES:

One of the more alarming trends that has emerged in traumatic brain injury (TBI) research is the link between TBI and homelessness. According to a University of British Columbia study, people who are homeless experience a disproportionately high lifetime prevalence of TBI. The meta-analysis, which was the first of its kind to look at the causal link between TBI and homelessness, looked at 38 studies published between 1995 and 2018. The results suggest that one in two homeless people experience a TBI, while one in four experience a TBI that is moderate or severe.[4]

Researchers also looked at the role of guidelines in reducing treatment variation and optimizing patient care. A study published in World Neurosurgery looked at 68 centers that treat TBI in 20 countries and found that there was substantial variability in the use and implementation of guidelines in neurotrauma centers in Europe.[5] With guideline adherence linked to greater patient outcomes, researchers are studying how to overcome implementation barriers.

NOTE: The Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation also released a set of living guidelines to help healthcare professionals manage prolonged symptoms for mild traumatic brain injuries and concussions. Please read our February blog for more information on these guidelines.

EMERGING TECHNOLOGY

Several advancements in medical technology have resulted in the advancement of brain research, including Abbott’s i-STAT™ Alinity™ device - a handheld, portable blood analyzer that can detect real-time brain injuries that are otherwise undetected on a CT scan. A study on the effectiveness of this device was published in the Lancet Neurology in August 2019, which looked at the presence of a brain-specific acidic protein in 450 participants as a potential biomarker for TBI.

The study found that among 90 people with the highest levels of the protein, as detected by the device, 64 per cent were confirmed to have a TBI.[6] This research demonstrates that blood tests have the potential to assist physicians in triaging patients suspected of TBI quickly and accurately.

The PoNS™ device is yet another example of technology facilitating brain health. The device works by delivering neuromodulation to stimulate nerves in the brain, which contributes to the restoration of neurological function including balance deficit and gait issues. Paired with patient measures, assessments and 14-weeks of physical therapy, researchers found 74 percent of participants who completed the PoNS Treatment™ experienced significant improvements in their balance and gait.

As we move into a new decade of brain research, artificial intelligence, advanced machine learning and data analytics will begin to play an increasingly important role in advancing our understanding of brain health.

REFERENCES

[1] Barnes, Deborah, Amy Byers, Raquel C. Gardner, et al. “Association of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury With and Without Loss of Consciousness With Dementia in US Military Veterans.” JAMA Neurology, Sept. 2018.

[2] “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.” Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-traumatic-encephalopathy/symptoms-causes/syc-20370921 (March 2, 2020)

[3] Leddy, JJ, M. Haider, M. Ellis, B. Willer. “Exercise is Medicine for Concussion.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, August 2018.  www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30095546

[4]  Stubbs, Jacob, Allen E Thornton, Jessica M Sevick, Noah D Silverberg, Alasdair M Barr, William G Honer, William J Panenka. “Traumatic brain injury in homeless and marginally housed individuals: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The Lancet Public Health, 2019.

[5] Volovici, Victor, Ari Ercole, Giuseppe Citerio, Nino Stocchetti, et al. “Variation in Guideline Implementation and Adherence Regarding Severe Traumatic Brain Injury Treatment: A CENTER-TBI Survey Study in Europe.” World Neurosurgery, vol. 125. May 2019.

[6] Yue, John, Esther Yuh, Frederick Korley, et al. “Association between plasma GFAP concentrations and MRI abnormalities in patients with CT-negative traumatic brain injury in the TRACK-TBI cohort: a prospective multicentre study.” The Lancet, August 2019.