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Effects of Early-Childhood Brain Injuries Can Last 10 Years or More

Children who suffer brain injuries in early childhood can have lingering effects for at least 10 years, according to a study published today in Pediatrics.

Given that roughly one in 30 children suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI) by age 16, these findings could end up having an impact on athletics for children in early grades.

The study is a follow-up to previous research that investigated the effects of TBIs in children for five years after the injury. In that study, children who had suffered TBIs were at "elevated risk of poor outcomes," especially if they had endured severe TBIs.

Of the 96 children (from Melbourne, Australia) in the original study who had suffered TBIs between ages 2 and 7, 40 agreed to participate in this follow-up. Seven of the 40 had mild TBIs, 20 of them had moderate TBIs, and the other 13 experienced severe TBIs. Sixteen of the 32 healthy (control) children from the original study also participated in this new research.

Much like the previous findings, young children who suffered severe TBIs suffered the most severe deficits, even years after their injury. Overall, their mean IQ scores were lower by 18 to 26 points 10 years after their brain injury.

This suggests that "serious TBI in early childhood results in global and persisting intellectual deficits," the researchers write.

Adults and school-aged children, on the other hand, tend to return to their original IQ level after suffering a TBI.

According to the study, children with mild TBIs (such as concussions) appeared to eventually rebound to their original level of functioning, too.

The researchers determined that, no matter the severity of the injury, recovery appeared to plateau in the 5- to 10-year range. They say that this runs counter to the theory that children "grow into deficits," as they appear to gradually "stabilize and make some developmental gains" after a "protracted recovery period."

In other words: Just because a child continues to feel the effects of a TBI suffered in early childhood doesn't mean that intervention would be useless. Eventually, after a TBI, a child's brain will adapt to the injury, leaving the potential for a return to normal brain development.

The children with severe TBIs may never catch up to their peers (as demonstrated by their lower IQ scores), but the gap doesn't appear to widen further, either.

The study, "Predictors of Cognitive Function and Recovery 10 Years After Traumatic Brain Injury in Young Children," was published online today and will be in the February 2012 edition of Pediatrics.

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