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The Invisible Injury: Memory loss after an accident: 'Brain Prize' awarded to three British scientists

Three British scientists – Tim Bliss, Graham Collingridge and Richard Morris — have shown how strengthened connections between brain cells can store our memories. They have been awarded a prize worth one million euros for their “Outstanding contribution to European neuroscience.”

Loss of memory after an accident

After sustaining a head injury in an accident it is not uncommon for the accident victim to suffer from memory loss.

The victim of such an accident will be likely to suffer from retrograde amnesia. This means that the individual will lose memory of the accident itself and often the events (hours, days or weeks) leading up to it. The more prolonged a period of retrograde amnesia the more serious the head injury

This retrograde amnesia is caused when the complex systems within the brain have been injured and the chemical balance in the brain has been affected.

As the brain chemistry normalizes and brain systems begin working, memory also starts to work. As accident victims start to recover from their head injuries, long-term memories usually start to return: not immediately but randomly bit by bit.

Difficulties in storing and recall of memories after an accident

Information flows in through the middle of our brain and a sophisticated filtering system signals which part of the brain to send that information to.

When the brain is injured, this system is upset and problems arise when there is a large influx of information. The injured brain cannot cope with this onslaught and fails to process it. Alternatively, the information may be processed but sent to the wrong place in the brain.

Added to this is the problem of recalling information from where it has been previously stored in the brain.

Accident victims with memory problems

To the outside world the accident victim with a head injury will appear as if there is nothing amiss. No sling, no crutch to indicate an injury. They carry the burden of an invisible injury, leading to a lack of understanding and compassion by others. This can add to an already demanding situation and the support of loved ones and family is very important to assist in the rehabilitation of the accident victim with a head injury.

Reduced cognitive abilities together with a lack of recall of important events can be very distressing for the accident victim with a head injury who already feels the embarrassment and constant frustration of not being able to recall the memory of having been places with a loved one, for example.

Early rehabilitation for accident victims with memory problems

The sooner the accident victim with a head injury seeks rehabilitation the better. Recovery from a head injury will be slow, and help is needed from those who specialise in head injuries.

In the brain, cells don’t regenerate when destroyed, but the brain tries to figure out a way to “work around” its problems, this is often referred to as “plasticity.”

There are many neuro rehabilitation centres throughout the country (where a team approach to rehabilitation is key) that can help. The accident victim with a head injury is likely to be seen by a consultant neurologist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, psychologist and rehabilitation specialist nurse.

The accident victim with a head injury will be taught strategies to help with the loss of memory, usually from a speech and language therapist. Various strategies will be looked at before deciding which one will work best for the accident victim

A new hope?

Speaking about his win in The Independent, Professor Morris, 67, of Edinburgh University was reported as saying “We now have sufficient understanding to look very seriously at ways in which we might be able to improve memory or alleviate some of the memory problems that happen in the early stages of neurodegenerative diseases.”

The work in understanding the mechanisms of learning and recall could help us address some brain conditions be they hereditary or sustained in an accident.

Until then early rehabilitation is the key to recovery of memory in accident victims with a head injury.