Your Brain at Work: Recovering from Brain Injury

Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives
Your Brain at Work

Put Your Brain to Work and It Will Work for You

We've all seen the news: we can affect how our brains work. Neuroscience tells us that we can increase our chances of maintaining our mental edge and functional independence throughout our lives. How? By working to keep our brains fit the way we work to keep our bodies healthy.

What you do everyday matters to your brain. The choices you make, your level of physical and mental activity, your social life, diet, and sleep habits-all these things can affect cognitive fitness: a state in which we are performing well mentally, emotionally, and functionally.


What Does it Mean to be "Brain Fit"

Notes from the Lab: Research studies in many countries have found four factors that may predict maintenance of cognitive function.

  1. Increased mental activity
  2. Increased physical activity
  3. Increased levels of social engagement
  4. Control of vascular risk by:
    a. Controlling weight
    b. Monitoring cholesterol
    c. Monitoring blood pressure
    d. Not smoking

Everyone knows what a fit body looks like, but fit brains, which don't boast rippled muscles or six-packs, are tougher to distinguish. Brain fitness is a state of mind in which we are performing well cognitively and emotionally. When we're cognitively fit, we're maintaining our mental edge, staying sharp, aging successfully. Brain fitness is not only the absence of disease either Alzheimer's or other types of dementia; it is also the preservation of emotional and cognitive well-being throughout our working years and beyond.


How Mental Activity May Help

How mental activity improves cognition (and reduces dementia risk in later life) is not entirely clear, but a leading theory is that it sets up a "cognitive reserve" in the brain. Intellectual stimulation drives the brain to develop denser synaptic connections. This in effect makes the brain more flexible, enabling it to use alternate neural pathways to adapt to changing demands and possibly offering some measure of protection from normal or disease-related cognitive changes.

"When we stimulate our brain by actively thinking, we are sculpting our own neural architecture." — Jordan Grafman, PhD, Chief, Cognitive Neuroscience Section, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Your Brain on Multitasking

Multitasking has become a way of life — and work — for many of us. We check email while on a conference call. Review slides during a meeting. Or talk on the cell phone while we're driving. Doing two or three things at once may have become so second-nature we don't even realize we're doing it. We may not be able to imagine how we would get through our day if not for this capacity to juggle.


How Can You Put It All Together?

Notes from the lab: Even if life sometimes feels like a rat race, people as a rule are a bit more evolved than rodents. But at the most fundamental levels of brain function- the dance of molecules, proteins, and electrical signals that drive cell-to-cell communication in the brain- we're not so different from out four-legged friends. It's reasonable to presume that generally, what's good for their brains is good for ours as well.

So what can we learn from decades of animal research chronicling the brain benefits of "enriched environments" that we can put to use in our lives? If we could create the perfect enriched environments in which to work, what would it include?

Think about how you can adapt your own work-style (and life in general) to incorporate principles of good cognitive health in each of these areas:

  • Working more physical activity into your day, including aerobic exercise, stretching, and moving your body whenever possible.
  • Stimulating and challenging the mind by learning something new and seeking out novel experiences or different ways of doing routine things.
  • Maintaining plenty of interaction with other people, including meaningful social engagement and connections with friends and loved ones.
  • Managing stress and finding positive ways of coping with high-stress periods.
  • Being mindful of your diet and sleep habits, working in brain-healthy foods on a daily basis, and giving your brain the sleep it needs to stay alert and attentive.



Learn Faster, Remember Better

There is a long history of research examining animals that are raised in so-called enriched environments — cages that are filled with toys, running wheels and tunnels, and that are shared with other animals. Mice or rats who are exposed to such stimulating environments, which give them ample opportunity for exercising voluntarily, playful exploration, and interacting with others of their species, show significant benefits over animals raised in standard cages without the extra stimulation. Specifically they learn to run a maze faster and more accurately, and to better remember the best path through the maze.

When researchers look at the brains of animals raised in these complex environments, they find increased numbers of synapses, larger blood vessels, higher levels of neuron-supporting brain chemicals, and other physiological changes indicative of improved neural functioning. Enrichment of this sort even boosts the number of new neurons that are generated in the hippocampus, a phenomenon that is associated with better learning.


Your Cognitive Fitness Strategy: An Action Plan for Brain Health

Write it down.
Putting your goals in writing makes them more meaningful. Adding why you want to achieve each goal is a real motivator.

Take baby steps.
You'll feel overwhelmed if you try to address every aspect of brain health at once. Set priorities.

Give yourself a timeframe.
And remember: That implies giving yourself enough time to work at and master your goals.

Be realistic.
People who try to do too much too soon often get discouraged and give up altogether. Don't be a victim of your own ambition. If your goals seem impossible, revise them.

Now, determine your baseline. Think about how you measure up against the healthy brain practices below.

Social Interaction
Who did I see today, and for what purposes?
What did I do to reconnect with someone I care about today?

Physical Activity
How many minutes did I walk today, including around the office?
How did I work exercise into my day?
Did I "walk and talk" at work, rather than emailing or phoning?

Cognitive Stimulation
What did I learn today?
What routine task did I approach differently today?
Did I challenge my mind? Did I do anything just for fun?

I ate ___ servings of fruits and vegetables today. 3 brain-healthy things I ate today are: ____________________________________

Stress Management
How was my stress level today?
What caused me the greatest stress today? What triggered it?
How did I cope? How did I relax?

How well did I sleep last night? How long? Did I awaken during the night?
If sleep was poor, do I know why?
Did I feel drowsy during the day?
Did I nap?

How you answer these questions may help you determine which areas of brain health you need to focus on as you map out your cognitive fitness plan.

Posted on BrainLine March 3, 2009.

Note: This content has been reprinted with permission of The Conference Board and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives; do not reproduce without permission from The Conference Board/The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

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Your Brain @ Work: Putting the Science of Cognitive Fitness to Work for You has been developed as part of a nationwide workplace program co-sponsored by the Mature Workforce Initiative of The Conference Board and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives with support from The Atlantic Philanthropies.

The Conference Board is one of the world's pre-eminent business membership and research organizations. Best known for the Consumer Confidence Index and the Leading Economic Indicators, The Conference Board has, for more than 90 years, equipped the world's leading corporations with practical knowledge through issues-oriented research and senior executive peer-to-peer meetings.

The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives is a nonprofit organization of more than 270 neuroscientists who are committed to advancing public awareness of the progress and promise of brain research and to disseminating information about the brain in an accessible fashion. The Dana Alliance, supported entirely by the Dana Foundation, does not fund research or give grants.

Excerpted from Your Brain at Work, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and The Conference Board. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Comments (11)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

I have vision problems this time around. The world is dim & blurry & not improving. I probably failed recaptcha because I can't see the little screnes.

And when you have done everything you can for more years than seem possible to live with the problem, sometimes you want to give up. Concussions aren't diagnosed here, even when they are known. We have no TBI knowledgeable neurologists less than a 5 hrs drive. And how many concussions for a woman are equal to a veteran or athlete. 1.6 MILLION WOMEN have more damage and little to no real medical help compared to the 18,000 vets & hundreds of athletes. Domestic violence is not treated. Some don't report it out of fear. Some simply do what they can because there isn't any real help out there. I have more lives than a cat to my grief. My entire immune system is affected as are my brain function, my body, my hope that someday, someway something that can help will be a available to me. I was beaten so badly that it created equivalent to more than a dozen coup contrecoups. I don't remember anything but my head exploding over & over. Now a single concussion takes me down to the beginning again. The time after the beating when I was hidden away to protect the perpetrator. I had no memory. Then I had a little. That's all I have. I have done all the therapies a available here but they aren't working this last time. One simple belly bang that sent me flying to land on my back & head. And I was doing better than I had in years. Now I am not. And at 70, who cares except me. I would like a few years with quality, fun & PURPOSE. But I am wondering which will take me first the body that has been at the door of death more times than I bother to count anymore, or dementia that is even now trying to steal what little I have left. No one wants to know why I am "different" or get to know that despite everything, inside is a good, compassionate person. I don't know the social rules or games of society. I tell truth. I forget things I need to do. I forget what I just said. I tell the truth because it's all I know or understand. Sometimes I don't know what is the truth because I don't remember. I can give a reasonable answer but I don't know if it's true. And the help that is out there for vets (just down the road) or athletes who can afford to go to the sources, those things are not available to me. Ad won't be even if I should live to be a hundred (God forbid). It wasn't my fault. Yet I couldn't get help when it happened because those years disappeared at the time & are never coming back. Once a few years ago I had a best friend who was so very dear to me because she accepted me as I am. Lucky her, she died.

Oh how I understand what your trying to say :(

I’m right there with you. 63 yrs old
tbi in 2005 and i really was lucky enough to get a great dr 3 yrs after and workman’s comp paid for it but other than learning how to walk and talk again that’s all the farther i’ve gotten.
My fiancé left. My daughter rarely gets ahold of me and couldn’t care less. i loved my job for 31yrs but never could make it back. i’m lost and alone and 90%of the time i wish they left me there in the ground instead of calling an ambulance. i understand just how you feel...

My dad was in a motorcycle accident 2 weeks ago . No helmet on , I’m so concerned because he had some mild dementia before this . Now he is all over the place and so confused . I can’t imagine not talking to him for even a day so I’m so sorry you feel alone. I hope you are doing ok today and saying a prayer for you.

Do you have or can you suggest a good support group online or in the Dallas area to help people heal from brain injuries? I am sure there are some on Facebook, but I would like to be connected to one that help me heal myself or if there is such a doctor in my area that takes Medicare and actually takes an interest in his or her patients that would be great!

I been surviving since 12.29.16.. About 6 months before that I had a realy bad separation with my fiance for 14 yrs.. I suffered a tbi frontal lobe injury.. I at that time was tryn to re merge with Jessica.. Throu those 1st 6 months before injury.. I was in a bad state of mind.. I wanted to die.. I then tried.. Wich caused that tbi.. After about 3 weeks at copper.. I was released with limitations.. Jessica is living in another house now with our 3 kids.. As I have been living in a foreclosed house.. Because the separation was so bad that family had to recover mentally from the stress.. Now it been 1.5. Yrs later since injury and my fiance doesn't want me to move back yet.. Even thou it's been shown that I have been getting beter mentally.. She refuses to let me back 100% with my family.. I work crazy hrs.. So when I get off of work I rush and crunch down time to be able to spend with our youngest. Wich is 6 now.. There's so much to say.. But long story short.. I feel like I'm here in a foreclosed house by myself.. Mentaly sufering every night looking at everything we lost.. And what's worst is on Holliday her family go over to her house and I spend hollidays alone if I'm not working.. I'm screemng for help.. Cause I know by staying in this house and going back and forth with why she can't take me back.. Is driving me insane... And if she would just say she doesn't want to be with me I can start a different route to therapy

when dealing with Tbi (2 weeks old) should you keep reminding patient they are in the hospital or just let then know they are safe?

It's more of a question I have! When a person develops a brain injury are they "stuck" at the age in which they sustained the injury?

You may consult to a Chiropractor Chantilly, VA, that will give you better suggestions about brain.

It is important for brain injury survivors to exercise not only their bodies, although physical exercise should never be diminished, but also their mental aptitude should be challenged. As a survivor I must point to activities that help your cognitive on-line thinking like games such as chess or scrabble to keep your brain firing out new ideas or strategies. Also, reading articles in the paper and even watching debates on TV can encourage you to form your own opinion, while forcing your brain to be cognitively fit. I also agree that social interaction is important because it urges individuals to keep their opinion making neurons firing when creating, or even maintaining relationships.