Effects of child head injuries can last for years

Fri May 29, 2009 1:00pm EDT
 
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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A blow to the head can affect a child's mental functioning for years afterward, depending on how severely the brain is affected, a new research review shows.

In a review of 28 studies published in the last 20 years, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) found that children with mild brain injuries typically showed subtle effects that resolved with time. With more severe injuries, however, the risk of lingering problems was significantly greater, researchers Talin Babikian and Robert Asarnow report in the journal Neuropsychology.

Their review found that compared with other children their age, children who'd suffered mild head injuries showed small, and "frequently negligible," differences in memory, attention and verbal ability in the short term. In the long term -- two years or more after the injury -- most children showed no significant effects.

There was, however, evidence that in younger children -- those who were between 2 and 7 years old at the time of the injury -- deficits in verbal skills sometimes lingered.

"The good news," Babikian said in a UCLA news release, "is that the studies showed that children with mild traumatic brain injuries and concussions may show some difficulties in cognition initially, but the effects are subtle and typically diminish over time."

For children who suffer moderate to severe brain injuries, the long- term outlook is not as good, the review found.

In the months after their injury, children with moderate brain injuries typically lagged behind their peers in certain intellectual measures, like brain processing speed, memory and problem solving. Two or more years later, the children generally showed some improvements, but often still trailed other children their age.

For children with severe brain injuries, the review found that the gaps with their peers often worsened over time.

That finding, Babikian said, highlights the importance of "targeted treatment" for children with severe brain injuries.

All of the findings, she added, underscore the importance of preventing head injuries in the first place -- through "consistent use of helmets and seatbelts." This is especially important for younger children, whose brains appear to be vulnerable to lasting damage.

SOURCE: Neuropsychology, May 2009.