Brain Injuries

Written by Shirley Parker
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A brain injury is probably one of the most feared traumatic events, one that people hope never happens to them. The effects of a brain injury depend on several factors and are always complex, but may be short-term or long-term. When people begin to read up on brain injuries--in order to help a family member--they realize that no two events are identical. Even so, it helps immensely to know that other families have shared somewhat similar experiences.

Each part of the brain has a specific function, such as keeping our breathing, body temperature, heart rate, and metabolism working in sync with each other. Other parts of our brain handle actual body movements, personality, behavior, or the way our thought processes work. And we're hard put to function without the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. (See final section below for the sixth sense.)

When an individual suffers an injury to the brain, various functions or areas may be affected. The function of nerve tracts and neurons is to carry messages but injury interferes with or prevents that. One likely result is that the patient's moods may change. Another result may be that the patient's ability to think and act, or to move parts of the body, is compromised. If injury is to a different area, the damage may make it difficult to regulate body temperature and blood pressure. Most distressing can be the inability to control the bladder and bowels. Any of these changes can be permanent, or hopefully, temporary. Rehabilitation, while stressful for the patient and the family, can greatly help the quality of life.

What Causes Brain Injury?

Before listing the causes of brain injury, it's important to mention that brain injuries may be considered mild, moderate or severe. However, even a so-called mild injury can cause ongoing, even unrecognized, problems for the victim. In some cases, he or she may not be able to live alone following a brain injury, though behavior seems quite normal in most respects.

Brain injuries are generally classified as congenital (happening during fetal development or resulting from birth trauma), traumatic, or acquired in nature. (Traumatic brain injury, considered a subset of acquired brain injury, is covered in its own section, as is anoxic brain injury, another subset.) Acquired brain injury is not hereditary or congenital and didn't happen during delivery of a newborn. Nor is it considered a degenerative condition in the United States. However, in a number of other countries, degenerative neurological disease is included as an acquired brain injury.

In the U.S., acquired brain injury is defined as an injury that the brain acquired after birth through an unfortunate event that affected cells throughout the brain. Such causes can include near-drowning, trauma to the head or neck, electric shock, strangulation, infectious diseases, tumors, carbon monoxide poisoning, drug overdose, and others. Heart attack, aneurysm, stroke or crushing-type injuries in the upper torso can also cause an acquired brain injury.

A Sixth Sense in the Brain?

Disagreement exists over what constitutes the sixth sense. Some researchers claim there's a specialized organ in the nose (vomeronasal organ or VNO) that can sniff out pheromones given off by other living beings. This has given rise to some speculative claims (and specious products) for physical attraction.

A very rare and real condition in the brain, called synesthesia, has been documented for centuries. For some reason, two or more of the senses fuse together within the brain. People with this rare condition are able to see numbers or music, or taste words. For example, the number three may be a shocking fuchsia or forest green color to them. Or sounds may produce a riot of color. On the other hand, a city name may literally taste like an apple.

For most of us, the sixth sense is usually considered to be intuition, which is an attribute we are born with. In some people, it is more developed than in others. At the moment, intuition is most often the realm of psychotherapists. However, recently published research--in the journal Science, for example--indicates that we may have such an "early warning system" in the anterior cingulate cortex. When things go awry there, mental illness may develop, but many more studies yet need to be done, of course, before this new knowledge can be applied to diagnosis and treatment.

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