For their study, neuroscientists at Brigham Young University (BYU) examined a group of children three years after each had suffered a traumatic brain injury, most commonly from car accidents. They found that a lingering injury in a specific region of the brain predicted the health of the children’s social lives.
“The thing that’s hardest about brain injury is that someone can have significant difficulties but they still look okay,” said Shawn Gale, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at BYU.
“But they have a harder time remembering things and focusing on things and that affects the way they interact with other people. Since they look fine, people don’t cut them as much slack as they ought to.”
For the study, published in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, Gale and Ph.D. student Ashley Levan compared the children’s social lives and thinking skills with the thickness of the brain’s outer layer in the frontal lobe.
The brain measurements came from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, while the social information was gathered from parents on a variety of subjects, such as their children’s participation in groups, number of friends, and the amount of time spent with friends.
The BYU scientists also found that physical injury and social withdrawal are connected through “cognitive proficiency,” defined as the combination of short-term memory and the brain’s processing speed.
“In social interactions we need to process the content of what a person is saying in addition to simultaneously processing nonverbal cues,” Levan said. “We then have to hold that information in our working memory to be able to respond appropriately. If you disrupt working memory or processing speed it can result in difficulty with social interactions.”
Separate studies on children with ADHD, which also affects the frontal lobes, show that therapy can improve working memory, according to the researchers. The researchers hope that future studies using BYU’s MRI facility will look into whether improvements in working memory could “treat” the social difficulties brought on by head injuries.
“This is a preliminary study, but we want to go into more of the details about why working memory and processing speed are associated with social functioning and how specific brain structures might be related to improve outcome,” Gale said.
Source: Brigham Young University