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Did that old head injury turn your child into a lifetime loner?

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Head injuries can make children loners, says a new study, "Right Frontal Pole Cortical Thickness and Social Competence in Children With Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury: Cognitive Proficiency as a Mediator," published April 7, 2014 in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation that also suggests a potential treatment. New research, has found that a child's relationships may be a hidden casualty long after a head injury. Physical injury and social withdrawal are connected, says the new study.

Neuroscientists at Brigham Young University studied a group of children three years after each had suffered a traumatic brain injury – most commonly from car accidents. The researchers found that lingering injury in a specific region of the brain predicted the health of the children's social lives.

Do head injuries turn your child into a loner with less interest in friendships or group participation?

The study looked at kids three years after the initial incident and found that lingering injury in the brain's right frontal lobe is associated with lower social competence (participation in groups, number of friends, and socializing, such as meeting new people or being open to making more close friends. The study also suggests that therapy designed to improve working memory might 'treat' the social difficulties.

"The thing that's hardest about brain injury is that someone can have significant difficulties but they still look okay," said Shawn Gale, according to the April 10, 2014 news release, "Head injuries can make children loners." Gale is a neuropsychologist at Brigham Young University (BYU). "But they have a harder time remembering things and focusing on things as well and that affects the way they interact with other people. Since they look fine, people don't cut them as much slack as they ought to."

Gale and Ph.D. student Ashley Levan authored a study published April 10, 2014 by the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, the leading publication in the field of rehabilitation

The study compared the children's social lives and thinking skills with the thickness of the brain's outer layer in the frontal lobe. The brain measurements came from MRI scans and the social information was gathered from parents on a variety of dimensions, such as their children's participation in groups, number of friends and amount of time spent with friends.

A second finding from the new study suggests one potential way to help. The Brigham Young University (BYU) scholars found that physical injury and social withdrawal are connected through something called "cognitive proficiency." Cognitive proficiency is the combination of short-term memory and the brain's processing speed.

Processing verbal and nonverbal cues

"In social interactions we need to process the content of what a person is saying in addition to simultaneously processing nonverbal cues," Levan said, according to the news release. "We then have to hold that information in our working memory to be able to respond appropriately. If you disrupt working memory or processing speed it can result in difficulty with social interactions."

Separate studies on children with ADHD, which also affects the frontal lobes, show that therapy can improve working memory. Gale would like to explore in future research with BYU's MRI facility if improvements in working memory could "treat" the social difficulties brought on by head injuries.

"This is a preliminary study but we want to go into more of the details about why working memory and processing speed are associated with social functioning and how specific brain structures might be related to improve outcome," Gale said, according to the news release. You also may be interested in the abstract of another study, "Low Self-Awareness of Individuals With Severe Traumatic Brain Injury Can Lead to Reduced Ability to Take Another Person's Perspective."

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