While there is a common set of symptoms that generally accompanies a traumatic brain injury (TBI), those symptoms vary in type, severity, and duration. Because of this, no two individuals will present identically after suffering their injury, which makes diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment more difficult for physicians and neuropsychologists. However, a new study could pave the way for a significant change in the way that medical professionals understand and treat TBI.
Researchers at the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University have found that nuanced differences in neural circuitry could have significant meaning for the treatment of traumatic brain injury patients. These differences could help explain why certain individuals are more or less prone to these sorts of injuries.
The human brain remains far too complex for academics and medical professionals to understand or explain exactly why certain brain injuries affect individuals differently, so the team at Georgia State conducted their research using a sea slug known as Tritonia diomedea. In stark contrast to human beings, these animals exhibit simple behaviors and possess a limited number of neurons. Despite their relatively primitive anatomy, however, the animals themselves did vary in their neural circuitry, making them prime research specimens.
To study the slugs, the researchers severed a major pathway in their brains and then examined a series of behaviors. Some of the animals were only slightly affected, while others could not perform the tasks that had previously been nothing more than natural behaviors, exhibiting individualized deficiencies not dissimilar to humans who have suffered a TBI. Amazingly, the researchers could actually influence these behaviors by rewiring the circuit through computer-generated connections, making animals more or less vulnerable to the injury in doing so.
Granted, sea slugs and human beings rest on diametrically opposing ends of the organic life intelligence spectrum, but it’s possible that this new research could serve as a catalyst for further breakthroughs involving brain mapping and, consequently, the treatment of TBI. Research leader Paul Katz explained, “This study… shows that even in a simple brain, small differences that have no effect under normal conditions, have major implications when the nervous system is challenged by injury or trauma.” For now, the pathophysiology of TBI remains opaque, but this research could significantly impact our understanding of the functionality of all nervous systems at some point in the not-so-distant future.
Sakurai, A., Tamvacakis, A. N., & Katz, P. S. (2014, June 11). Hidden synaptic differences in a neural circuit underlie differential behavioral susceptibility to a neural injury. eLife. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.02598#sthash.rqGUyiUc.dpuf