One year after experiencing a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), people with the equivalent of at least a college education are seven times more likely than high school dropouts to have completely recovered, according to new research by Johns Hopkins.
This suggests that the brain’s “cognitive reserve” may play a role in helping people heal and return to normal functioning, according to researchers.
The findings, published in the journal Neurology, are similar to those in Alzheimer’s disease research, in which higher educational achievement — thought to be an indicator of a more active use of the brain’s “muscles” and therefore its cognitive reserve — has been linked to slower progression of dementia.
“After this type of brain injury, some patients experience lifelong disability, while others with very similar damage achieve a full recovery,” said study leader Eric B. Schneider, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research.
“Our work suggests that cognitive reserve — the brain’s ability to be resilient in the face of insult or injury — could account for the difference.”
Schneider conducted the research in conjunction with Robert D. Stevens, M.D., a neuro-intensive care physician with Johns Hopkins’ Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine.
The study involved 769 patients enrolled in the TBI Model Systems database, an ongoing multi-center group of patients funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. All of the participants had been hospitalized with a moderate to severe TBI and then checked into a rehabilitation facility.
The findings revealed that 219 patients (27.8 percent) were free of any detectable disability one year after their injury. Only 23 patients who didn’t complete high school recovered, while 136 patients with between 12 and 15 years of schooling recovered.
Furthermore, nearly 40 percent of patients who had 16 or more years of education fully recovered.
Still, researchers are unsure of the biological reasons for the link between years of schooling and improved recovery.
“People with increased cognitive reserve capabilities may actually heal in a different way that allows them to return to their pre–injury function and/or they may be able to better adapt and form new pathways in their brains to compensate for the injury,” Schneider said.
“Further studies are needed to not only find out, but also to use that knowledge to help people with less cognitive reserve.”
“What we learned may point to the potential value of continuing to educate yourself and engage in cognitively intensive activities. Just as we try to keep our bodies strong in order to help us recover when we are ill, we need to keep the brain in the best shape it can be.”
Source: Johns Hopkins