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How the Brain Heals After Injury & Its Effect on Speech

This week the Chicago Tribune published an interview with a local professor of communication science that caught the eye of our Chicago brain injury lawyers. The discussion was based on the high-profile story of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who most know was shot in the head by a gunman almost a year ago. Firearms cause a significant number of traumatic brain injuries across the country each year. Many of the injuries are fatal, but in some cases, as with the Congresswoman, the victim is able to survive. Mrs Giffords story has been particularly amazing, considering the speed and scope of her recovery.

However, anyone who watched the Congresswoman’s first public interview late last year would have appreciated, there remains a long road still ahead. Like many other traumatic brain injury victims, Mrs. Giffords continues to struggle with words. For many of these individuals, their personality is perfectly intact, but their ability to communicate and vocalize words is hampered. The Northwestern University professor interviewed for the story explained that the speech problem, known as aphasia, affects nearly 1 million Americans. There has been a rise in the prevalence of the brain injury related problem, and more than 2 million citizens are expected to exhibit aphasia by the end of this decade.

The professor, whose work focuses on language recover following brain damage, explained that aphasia can affect both ability to understand words and the ability to produce spoken words. In general it is caused by disrupted blood flow to the part of the brain involved in language processing. For a long time experts assumed that brain injury victims of this sort could never fully recover after a certain length of time. A plateau was usually reached, meaning there was only a limited window of time where recovery could take pace. Yet, in news that is encouraging for all Illinois brain injury victims, that old assumption has been tossed out the window. Now experts believe that, in the professor’s words that “the brain is an organ of plasticity and it continues to change and improve throughout life.”

This surprising finding was reached using experimental training protocols. The professor’s research team has trained several dozen individuals who were in the chronic stage of aphasia. The vast majority of those participants (90%) showed improvement. Those patients receiving treatment then had MRIs taken to examine the physical effect on the brain development. The test revealed that those who had received the training (and improved) showed evidence of neural reorganization.

The doctor noted that the brain can recover even 10 years after the original injury, so long as proper training in provided. Yet, insurance providers routinely only cover training for a few weeks following the injury. Patients are usually discharged long before they have reached their maximum gains. This disturbing fact is one of many reasons why our Chicago brain injury attorneys work hard to help victims of these injuries seek redress and make available resources that will allow them to have extended therapy and training to reach their full potential.

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