Brain Plasticity And Cognitive Development After Pediatric Brain Injury

Brain Artwork with Colorful Lights

The relationship between recovery after a childhood brain injury and the development of certain cognitive skills is not well understood. A recent longitudinal study of children who sustained a traumatic brain injury suggests that the two ideas, neural recovery and cognitive development, are better understood if separated into two different scales.

The recovery of neural function after a brain injury relies on plasticity-the ability for neurons to strengthen or be refined. Plasticity lies upon a continuum. On one end, plasticity strengthens and refines to adapt to developmental milestones such as increased executive functions or verbal skills. On the other end, plasticity can respond to an injury by disrupting neural connections that may be important for emerging skills.

Plasticity and neural recovery are thought to occur along a linear path-after a brain injury, this is usually seen within the first two years after the injury. Cognitive development is thought to occur in a stepwise pattern defined by significant milestones-after a brain injury, problems in cognitive development are often seen up to ten years after the injury.

In the longitudinal study, researchers found that children who had suffered a traumatic brain injury showed the potential for both developmental impairment and developmental gains, even up to ten years after the injury. This suggests that cognitive development lies upon a continuum similar to that of plasticity, where a child may "catch up" to certain cognitive developmental milestones, and fail to reach others. This finding challenges past research that suggests that no further recovery can be reached after the first few years of recovery, and underlines the need for continued support.

Jonsson CA, Catroppa C, Godfrey C, Smedler A, & Anderson V. Cognitive recovery and development after traumatic brain injury in childhood. A person-oriented, longitudinal study. Journal of Neurotrauma. (November 2012).