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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • I work a lot with children and young people who have suffered a brain injury.  It is one of the most devastating conditions.  Brain injury often results in changes to personality, to memory, to social ability and sometime to physical disability.  It often occurs to normally developing individuals.  Because brain cells do not repair themselves there is no cure and it is a case of living with and adapting to the condition.  I have noticed however that there is one area of functioning that seems to be preserved and often actually enhanced following a brain injury and that is creativity.  Although the brain can not repair itself new neural pathways can develop which I believe can allow new talents to emerge or create a different way of seeing the world.  I have worked with several young people who have gone on to A level and university to do photography or Art despite their disability.   One person I know, Spencer Aston is working as a freelance photographer. He takes photos from a unique perspective in my opinion.  I have come across other individuals who have become artists following a brain injury- see this site for examples.   Also in terms of music there it the amazing Melody Gardot who makes beautiful music  despite or perhaps as a result of suffering a severe brain injury as a teenager.  Other singers I really like and who have suffered severe brain injury and recovered to do some great work include Marc Almond (details of injury here) and Edwin Collins (details of recovery here).   All these people are inspiring.  The message is that while having a severe brain injury can be devastating there is hope and possibly new futures.  I would encourage young people with brain injury or their parents to explore different potential creative opportunities.  I would also love to hear of other stories of people with a brain injury who have developed creatively following their injury.

  • Everyone is a psychologist.  By that I mean that everyone tries to work out why people behave the way they do.  This is an inbuilt social drive that helps us to interact normally.  It is based on theory of mind which is about understanding other people’s mental states and intentions.  Lack of theory of mind is the key disability in Autism.   In my work I find that most people have a strong belief about why someone is behaving the way that they do (although in my work I think that it is often a wrong belief).

    I think we base our understanding on why others behave  the way that they do on what we think about ourselves and our cultural norms.  This is essential to group cohesion.  No one can truly know how another person is thinking but we automatically make an educated guess.  The difficulty comes when normal behaviour breaks down.   We know that in some individuals behaviour and personality changes dramatically with acquired frontal brain injury- see the case of Phineas Gage.   I see similar difficulties in my work with children with head injury, neurodevelopmental disorders and sometimes those with a history of abuse and neglect.  With these children I see very challenging behaviour that doesn’t respond to normal parenting or behaviour modification.  I will write about why this is in more detail at a later date (to with difficulties in development of frontal brain areas). In general though behavioural control is more complicated than it seems.

    I was particularly struck by this difficulty in understanding why some people behave the way they do when reading a research paper looking at the most extreme of behaviours, murder.  Why does someone comit murder?  The paper looks at 77 inmates or defendants charged with murder in the US and referred for neuropsychological assessment.  The sample is self selected because they were referred for clinical assessment rather than randomly chosen for research.  However, the sample characteristics are striking.  Some of the key facts are:

    • 49.4% had a developmental disorder in childhood.  (36.4% had ADHD)
    • 87% had a brain injury (self reported and 10% had documented evidence)
    • 85% had a history of substance abuse.
    • 45% had a psychiatric history
    • 35% had a history of abuse in childhood.

    From the neuropsychological assessment the mean IQ was 84 , which is a standard deviation below the norm.  Mean working memory was 87 which is low average.  The mean logical memory score was 68 which is very low indicating significant memory problems.  The sample also had a high rate of assessed executive function difficulty (executive function is the cognitive ability associated with the front area of the brain).

    You will need to read the paper to find all the details because there are so many interesting factors in the sample.   However, taken together the majority of the sample had some form of brain damage/ disorder or abuse stemming from childhood (which as I have discussed here often leads to developmental brain damage).   Exactly what is going on in their heads can never be know and the neuropsychological factors don’t explain the trigger or situation in which the murder took place.  However, it is clear that there are neurological and neurodevelopmental factors going on here, and given what we know about these in childhood and from case studies, it is unclear how much control such individuals have in a given situation.  I don’t offer this as an excuse to let people off and certainly I think many of these people are extremely dangerous.  But the results may shake our assumptions  (based on our own theory of mind) as to why people behave the way that they do.  Consider this next time you hear about a murder in the News.  Also the results may point to the importance of prevention in terms of early identification and treatment of childhood neurological problems and childhood abuse.  So many of these people’s problems seem to stem from experiences and events in their childhoods.

  • I am a avid user of Twitter and find all sorts of interesting information on there. As with the web, however it is difficult to sort out what is important. It also moves so fast that it is hard to keep track. This post highlights some important tweets I have seen regarding advances in neuroscience in the last two weeks.

    1. Repairing brain cells- Researchers at the Montreal NeurologicaI Institute and Hospital (The Neuro) and McGill University group at Montral University have developed a new technique to help repair damaged nerve cells. The study was in the October 7 issue of Journal of Neuroscience. They show that it is possible to use plastic beads coated with a substance that encourages adhesion to help cells grow and form new synapses. You can read about this study here

    2 Gene therapy. A study reported in Nature News investigated possible gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a neurological condition affecting motor control and is associated with a depleted neurotransmitter, dopamine. Stéphane Palfi, a neurosurgeon at the French Atomic Energy Commission’s Institute of Biomedical Imaging in Orsay, and his colleagues simulated Parkinson’s disease in monkeys and then injected the monkeys’ brains with three genes essential for synthesizing dopamine. They saw significant improvements in motor behaviour after just two weeks, without any visible adverse effects. “We don’t see any problems in these monkeys,” says Palfi. One animal even exhibited sustained recovery more than 3.5 years later. You can read about this study here.

    3. Understanding brain development. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a key molecular player in guiding the formation of synapses. The paper, published online Oct. 8 in the journal Cell, looks at the interaction between neurons and astrocytes. The relationship is complicated but to quote from the report in science daily “It is commonly agreed that the precise placement and strength of each person’s trillions of synaptic connections closely maps with that person’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral makeup. But exactly why a particular synapse is formed in a certain place at a certain time has largely remained a mystery. In 2005, Barres took a big step toward explaining this process when he and his colleagues discovered that a protein astrocytes secrete, called thrombospondin, is essential to the formation of this complex brain circuitry.

    In this new study, Barres, lead author Cagla Eroglu, PhD, and their colleagues demonstrate how thrombospondin binds to a receptor found on neurons’ outer membranes. The role of this receptor, known as alpha2delta-1, had been obscure until now. But in an experiment with mice, the scientists found that neurons lacking alpha2delta-1 were unable to form synapses in response to thrombospondin stimulation.

    The researchers stimulated neurons with thrombospondin and found, those neurons produced twice as many synapses in response to stimulation than did their ummodified counterparts. Understanding this key mechanism could help explain children’s brains development and why this goes wrong for some children. Understanding the biochemistry holds out hope for future treatments. You can read the full report here.

    4. Computer games and rehabilitation. Every week there are reports on how computer games can help learning. As you will see from previous posts on this blog I am great believer in the potential of computer games for rehabilitation and learning. Just one interesting post this week shows an initiative to help individuals with strokes to regain movement using computer game technology. Read about it here.

    This is just a small selection of the information I am finding on Twitter. It shows some of the advances that are being made to understand and help individuals with neurological illness. You can follow me on Twitter here.

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  • I have just been reading a very good new book on neuropsychological rehabilitation by Barbara Wilson and colleagues Neuropsychological Rehabilitation: Theory, Models, Therapy and Outcome
    I also heard her give an interesting talk this week on memory rehabilitation. In the book and the talk she discuses proven techniques to help with memory. These are designed for individual with memory problems but they also work really well for anyone wanting to learn and remember information. The methods are backed with experimental evidence. They will work for adults as well as children.

    1. Encourage associations or links when learning- the best way is to use visual or spatial images and associate these with what you are trying to learn. Some of the best learners use an internal picture of a house or journey and imagine what they have to remember placed in different places in the house. This helps with retrieval of information from memory.

    2. Spaced retrieval i.e. gradually extend the recall time. With this you need to initially recall what you have learnt straight away and then over time extend the time gap between learning and retrieval. For example look at a fact to remember, cover and recall immediately, then look again and wait for 15 seconds and try and recall, then 30 seconds and then 1 min etc. This leads to information stored more deeply in memory.

    3. Pace your learning and reduce the amount you are trying to learn at any one time. Learn a few bits of information, have a break and learn a few more. Trying to do too much at once doesn’t work.

    4. Organize the information e.g. if learning a list, group the items together according to meaning. For example for a shopping list put the items of fruit together, drink together etc. If learning facts group together for meaning. The brain likes to store information semantically i.e. according to categories.

    5. Error free learning- this is used to teach others. If the person doesn’t know the answer to the question immediately provide the answer and ask them to repeat. Continue to support until the answer is recalled automatically without any errors. This works for adults with memory problems including those with Alzheimer’s and also for children with learning difficulties. See previous post for more details

    It does take a bit more effort to store information more efficiently in memory when learning but these methods are proven to work. There are other techniques and also the research behind them in the book.

  • I have been working clinically with children with head injury now for over 12 years and this has allowed me to see the longitudinal effects of childhood head injury for myself. What I have noticed is that some children with what appeared to initially be mild head injury (i.e. no prolonged loss of consciousness) continued to have problems over time. I have looked at these cases in some detail and their developmental problem can’t be explained by pre morbid functioning (i.e. any difficulties before the head injury). This experience is not what the textbooks say is supposed to happen. Mild head injury is thought to be associated with better prognosis and is very rarely followed up by medical services. However, three new studies this year suggest that Mild Head Injury may result in more problems than previously though.

    A new study reported in the Journal of Head Trauma and Rehabilitation looked over time at preschool children (before the age of 5) who suffered a minor head injury. They reaseessed these children at age 14 to 16 years and found that the group who had been hospitalised with MHI were significantly more likely to show symptoms of ADHD, conduct/oppositional disorder, substance abuse and mood disorder than a control group or a non hospitalized group.

    This research group also reported in a separate journal with similar findings and the results are summarised in the excellent child psychology research blog. As Nestor Lopez-Duran the blog’s author reports ‘ the data strongly links TBI history to the presence of ADHD and conduct disorder symptoms years after the injury, and regardless of the underlying mechanism”

    These studies are also on the back of another study by Keith Yeates and his research group published in Pediatrics . They found persistent problems more than 12 months after mild head injury.

    So what are the implications of this. Firstly I think we need to look at categorisation of head injury in children. At present the main categorization tool is the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS). This basically looks at levels of consciousness. Another important measure is Post Traumatic Amnesia -PTA (which looks at length of time where the person is confused or amnesic following the HI), however PTA in my experience is rarely assessed clinically. I think that both categorization tools are very blunt instrument. I have seen many children, for example with skull fractures who have not lost consciousness but seem to have poor outcome. The New Zealand studies above found that hospitalization was an important indicator. The Yeates study found that children with ‘mild traumatic brain injuries whose acute clinical presentation reflected more severe injury’ had a worst outcome. Therefore it seems clear that GCS is not sufficient in predicting neuropsychological outcome. All clinicians and researchers should be looking in more detail at the wider clinical picture.

    The other implication is that many of these children are discharged from hospital back to their families and schools with no follow up and no information that there may be ongoing problems. About 1 in 30 children suffer a traumatic brain injury so the problem is potentially very big and will affect all schools. It may that teachers could be the best people to identify these children providing that they have the knowledge to do so. There is a great need to educate teachers and other educational professionals about this. Most children with problems after a head injury will show a deterioration in behaviour and academic functioning in school often over time. For the teachers out there if you notice a child struggling or notice a deterioration in behaviour and performance it is worth enquiring whether the child has suffered a head injury. If this is the case it would be important to alert child health services. Also for mental health professionals it is important to always check for a history of head injury including mild head injury especially for children with ADHD or behaviour problems. I am certain that there are many children and adults out there who are not being indentified and suffering as a result.

  • One of the most distressing symptoms for many of the children and young people I see clinically after a traumatic brain injury or stroke is the physical disability caused by the neurological injury. Most parents, children and young people hold out most hope for a physical recovery. The physical disability is the most visible symptom to the patient, their families and to other people. At present the main therapy to help with this is physiotherapy. Physiotherapy requires repeated exercise to try and improve physical function. Recent research has shown that physiotherapy is more effective in treating adult stoke patients than no therapy, although the type of physiotherapy used didn’t seem to make a difference. However, even with a disorder as physically treatable as stroke about 50-60% of individuals do not make a full physical recovery. I think the numbers for TBI based injury who don’t make a recovery would probably be higher. The other problem with a behavioural based phsyiotherapy is that it is difficult to maintain particularly for children and young people with neurological based injury. The exercises tend to be repetitive, lack meaning and often require the individual to remember and practice the therapy on a daily basis. This is a particular problem when children are discharged from hospital and may only see the physiotherapist on a weekly basis. An additional problem maintaining therapy occurs for children and adults with other neurological symptoms such as executive function difficulties (i.e difficulties with initiation, self monitoring, motivation etc) and memory difficulties. Therefore there is a need to develop other treatment approaches. A special edition of the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation out last month is devoted to innovative ways to treat neurologically based physical disability. These are mainly based on non invasive brain stimulation. One approach is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. This is based on stimulating the brain using powerful magnets. The neuroscience behind this is explained in detail here. It is believed to enhance the process of plasticity. In terms of outcome this article concludes that ‘There has been some modest functional improvement reported after some NBS interventions, however the longer-term clinical benefits remain unproven’.

    Another approach discussed in this article is the use of robotics e.g using a robotic arm/ exoskeleton to deliver the physical therapy. This takes the effort away from the person and could deliver very precise exercises. It also seems to rely on implicit (rather than explicit) learning which is the way that individuals with brain injury seem to learn best – see this post. The authors describe the outcome research as follows “In a systematic review of eight robotic neurorehabilitation trials, Prange and colleagues concluded that robotic therapies led to long-term improvement in motor control by increasing speed, muscle activation patterns and movement selection, although no consistent benefit was found with ADL (Activities of Daily Living) measures (note the authors explain why this may be the case). There could also be the possibility of combining the robotics with virtual reality and computer games to make physical rehabilitation motivating, fun and engaging. This would make it much more likely for children and young people to benefit from the therapy.

    In all it is still very early in terms of this research to recommend new types of treatment now, but it does show that there are a number of new techniques on the horizon. These techniques would be especially relevant for children and young people with a neurologically based physical disability.

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  • A new study on the benefits of stem cell therapy in patients with multiple sclerosis is a very exciting one for all neuroscience. The study shows that by giving stem cells to MS patients, disability is halted or reversed. The study included measures of neuropsychological function as well as neurological rating scales and quality of life. Improvements in these areas were seen in 17 out of 21 patients and there was no deterioration in the other 4. The reason why it is so important lies in the use of stem cells. The problem with all neurological disability including childhood brain injury is that the brain can not repair itself. This is to do with the way the brain develops. The brain starts to develop at 40 days old with stem cells lining the neural tube. The stem cells turn into precursor cells, then blast cells and then specialized neurological cells. The whole process lasts until the fetus is approximately 6 months old. It is an amazing process with cells developing at the rapid rate of approximately 250,000 a minutes. However, by the end of six months the process stops and you are left with the brain that will last you the rest of your life. If you damage the cells in your brain they will not grow back in the same ways as skin and bone cells would. This is the reason why neurological injury is so hard to treat. If, however, we can replicate the natural development process by using stem cells the possibility is there to treat all neurological disability. It is still early days in terms of this research but these findings are very encouraging. A major problem has been that you basically need to use embryos to produce the stem cells. The recent Bush government in the US was against this on religious and moral grounds. There are however, some new discoveries now in using adult stem cells from different areas of the body. Also it is believed that Barak Obama will allow the stem cell research to start again. Just recently the FDA in the US approved use of stem cells in human medical trials for spinal chord injury. If the research does take off and if these early research findings are replicated there is the very exciting prospect of new treatments for neurological disability in the future.

  • Children with brain injury often have memory problems which means that they find learning new material difficult. One particular problem seems to be with trial and error learning. Children (and adults) with memory problems find it hard to eliminate the errors. The original work was done on amnesic patients in a study by Alan Baddeley and Barbara Wilson . They introduced the concept of errorless learning as a way of helping the individuals with amnesia learn. Errorless learning means intervening before the person makes the errors. It may seem counter intuitive but I have seen it work repeatedly in children in clinical practice. Over time it is best to withdraw support gradually whilst still trying to avoid errors. One of the best people talking and writing about child neuropsychological rehabilitation is Mark Ylvisaker from New York and he has a good way of explaining how this concept can be used to teach children. He is a great speaker and we met when he came over to London to talk at a conference I arranged. I would recommend trying to get to see him speak but if you can’t he has a great website with videos of him talking about different topics. The video on errorless learning is particularly good The video didn’t work well for me on his website (lots of stops and starts) so I would recommend downloading it first.