Cognitive Rehabilitation Can Improve Emotion Recognition Deficits After Brain Injury.

brain scans

Cognitive rehabilitation can improve emotion recognition deficits after brain injury.

The ability to recognize another person’s emotions is an important part of social interactions because it helps translate nonverbal communication, such as facial expression or tone of voice, into an understanding of the other person’s feelings and intentions. This in turn provides a map for how to react or behave in response. A deficit in this ability can result in misunderstandings, frustration, and, ultimately, social isolation. The inability to recognize emotions through nonverbal cues is a relatively common effect of traumatic brain injury (TBI), affecting approximately 30% of the TBI population.

Although these deficits can last for many years after the injury, research suggests that there may be effective treatments to improve emotion recognition. A recent multi-site study was conducted across the United States, Canada, and New Zealand to determine if a facial affect recognition (FAR) intervention was effective at reversing emotion recognition deficits. Participants were 48 adults with TBI at an average of 10.3 years post-injury. Half of the participants were placed in the FAR intervention group, and half in a control group. The FAR intervention included nine 60-to-90-minute sessions in which participants were shown a series of faces depicting different emotions. Participants were asked to identify the emotion and replicate it using their own facial expression to strengthen their association between the emotion they were viewing and its corresponding facial expression.

The research team found that individuals in the FAR group showed significantly improved ability to recognize emotion. Additionally, they found that:

  • Men and women with TBI were equally impaired in processing facial emotions.
  • Individuals tended to struggle with processing negative emotions (e.g., sadness, fear, anxiety) more than positive emotions.
  • Six months after FAR treatment concluded, participants retained their improved ability to recognize and process facial cues.

Clinical professionals and family members of individuals with emotion recognition deficits should be conscious of the fact that effective, non-invasive treatments are available and can vastly improve an individual's ability to recognize emotions through facial cues. Although such treatments are relatively new and not yet standardized, incorporating this skill work intervention into TBI rehabilitation could provide individuals with an easier return to their daily and social lives through improved social skills.

Neumann D, Willer B, Zupan B. Cognitive Rehabilitation for Emotion Recognition Deficits after Brain Injury. Brain Injury Professional. (February 2021).

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