Brain Myth -- Brain Injury Is Always Permanent

When you hear the words “brain injury” or “brain damage,” it is an extremely scary thing – it means the destruction or degeneration of brain cells. To many people, this conjures images of permanent physical or mental disability. But that is not always the case; in many cases, the brain can repair itself.

Even as little as two decades ago, neuroscientists believed that the brain could not make new cells. But today, using sophisticated imaging technology, scientists can see that the brain can regenerate. This process is known as neurogenesis (or “brain plasticity”). Neurogenesis is the process of forming new brain cells, and unlike what was previously thought, this process continues throughout life. Scientists are finding that the brain is able to change neurons, the organization of their networks, or their function through training and new experiences. For example, if neurons are damaged or lost, the brain can create new pathways between neurons. In addition, the brain can “reconfigure itself”: Areas of the brain that aren’t associated with certain functions can take over and allow the patient to relearn how to do things. The fact that the brain has an ability to learn by adding or removing connections, or adding cells, gives doctors and patients more hope of patients’ abilities to regain functioning after brain injury.

The brain is vulnerable to many types of injuries that can be caused by anything from an infection to a car accident. How it affects someone depends on many factors, such as its location and how severe it is. The extent of injury and subsequent impairment to functions such as memory, judgment, reflexes, speech, balance and coordination cannot be easily predicted. The resulting disabilities can be treated by a number of methods, including medication, rehabilitation, surgery, physical implants, and psychotherapy. For example, stroke patients can often regain speech and motor skills through therapy.

There are still many mysteries about the brain. When a person suffers a brain injury, doctors are not always able to predict how well recovery will go, and why a brain repairs itself in some situations and not in others. But one thing is certain – the new research on brain plasticity has given people hope that brain injury is not always permanent. The brain has a remarkable ability to recover after injury – sometimes even years later!

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