Use your head and take care of your brain

Without proper care and attention, concussions can leave lasting effects

Concussions can cause damage to the brain that, in some cases, can last for decades after the original occurrence of trauma to the head. They consist of temporary losses of brain function that can have physical, emotional and cognitive effects. Symptoms can vary based on the severity of the injury, but often include vomiting, headache, nausea, disturbed sleep, moodiness, amnesia and depression.

The brain is composed of soft tissue that is protected by blood and spinal fluid. However, when someone experiences an impact or a fast jolt to their head, their brain shifts and hits their skull. This causes swelling and bruising of the brain, as well as injury to nerves and damage to blood vessels, all of which are characteristic of a concussion.

When the symptoms of a concussion have disappeared, the brain is still not completely back to normal, according to Dr. Maryse Lassonde, a neuropsychologist and the scientific director of the  Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies (Quebec Nature and Technologies Granting Agency). Dr. Lassonde is involved in research that investigates the long-term effects that severe head trauma can have on athletes, specifically hockey players.

To evaluate brain damage after a severe hit, she tested concussed athletes’ brain chemistry as well as visual and auditory ability. These longitudinal studies indicated that individuals experience reductions in motor sequence learning, which is the ability to acquire knowledge regarding sequences of events and actions. It was also found that abnormal brainwave activity is still present years after a severe concussion. This demonstrates the need to prevent head trauma that occurs in sports, and speaks to the importance of treating concussions with appropriate care and attention.

Dr. Jennifer Tomes, a psychology professor at Mount Allison, studies the long-term effects of concussions on memory and emotion. Kiersten Mangold, a third-year psychology student, is currently completing an independent study with Dr. Tomes that investigates the long-term effects of concussions on false memories and source monitoring, which is the ability to remember where you learned something. More specifically, Mangold is looking at the consequences of experiencing more than one concussion.

Mangold is a varsity athlete and has witnessed the frequency that concussions occur in sport, which has led to her belief that this area of research is both relevant and significant. “The complexity of the brain and the evidence that there are underlying effects that aren’t immediately apparent is fascinating,” Mangold explained. “The return to school or sport often happens too quickly because the common perspective is that a concussion is gone once the symptoms have subsided. In reality, an abrupt return can worsen the effects and prolong the recovery process.”

Dr. Tomes developed Mt. A’s concussion protocol. This protocol outlines steps that are recommended to be taken to return to sport, school and work. It also provides resources for students to use while recovering from a concussion. Dr. Tomes has collaborated with Anne Comfort, the director of accessibility and student wellness at Mt. A, who takes care of the academic portion of the protocol.

Comfort can be contacted at acomfort@mta.ca for academic accommodations while easing back into school. The Wellness Centre offers resources that can also be of help when recovering from a concussion.

Kathleen Morrison