Child Brain Versus Adult Brain with Traumatic Brain Injury

Studies show that a child's brain is more vulnerable to the effects of a brain injury and takes longer to recover.

There is a difference between the adult brain and the child's brain when it comes to traumatic brain injury, and I'm going to focus just on mild concussion at this time. The child's brain appears to be more vulnerable to injury, and it appears that it takes longer to recover from a mild head injury. In our research at the University of Virginia Medical School, we have looked at mild head injury in football players primarily. This is an age group that is at the end of development of the brain, so it's almost the mature brain. To make a long story short, our research suggests that the mature brain recovers within 5 to 10 days of any concussion. In college football, for example, most of our concussions on the field result in the player being out for a few days and slowly working themselves back, once they're symptom-free. That usually is by the next game. In children it may be a very different story. When I say children, I mean anywhere up to about 21 or 25. The brain continues to develop until about 25, but the vulnerability is probably at the middle school and the high school level for the brain not quite being mature at that point. We know that's the case. The frontal lobes certainly aren't as developed as the rest of the brain. The brain develops from the bottom up, and from the back forward, and so the last thing that kicks in is the frontal lobes, and that's the area of judgment and so on, and so that's a good reason not to give your kids the car keys at age 8. We at least wait until 15 or 16 these days. Of course, you can't vote until a certain age. You can't drink until a certain age. That probably reflects a lot of neurodevelopment. The frontal lobes have not yet developed. In the case of children having brain injuries, we have some animal models which look at this issue. There what we have found--with mice, at least, and you, of course, can argue that mice are not people--but in mice, if you give a mature mice a mild head injury, it takes about 5 to 10 days, just like our football players, for the glucose utilization that I talked about earlier, and that metabolism to get back to normal. In the immature mice--and this is research done at UCLA by Dr. David Hovda-- he found that it took between 6 and 10 times longer for those mice to recover their glucose utilization and metabolism. If we want to extrapolate from that literature, we would have to say that children are more vulnerable to the effects of any kind of either concussive blow or acceleration/deceleration injury.
Posted on BrainLine July 29, 2010. Reviewed December 20, 2017.

Produced by Victoria Tilney McDonough and Brian King, BrainLine.