Louis Theroux: A Different Brain

Brain injury is the subject of Louis Theroux’s new documentary, which will be aired on BBC 2 on Sunday (15 May).

During the film Louis meets adults living with the long-term effects of a brain injury. So we thought we'd shine the spotlight on brain injury in children. Every year 70,000 children are admitted to hospital with a head injury. Below we answer many of the frequently asked questions on brain injury in children.

What is acquired brain injury?

Thousands of children and their families are affected by acquired brain injury every year. It is often shortened to ‘ABI’. The ‘acquired’ part means simply that the child wasn’t born with their injury – it is the result of an accident or illness that has happened later. Learn more about the difference in traumatic and non-traumatic brain injury here.    

Are children and adults affected differently?

Very much so. Most of us think of children as a work in progress, and the experts agree. The human brain keeps developing until we are in our 20s, and some research suggests it goes on for longer. If part of the brain is injured during the earlier stages of development, a child might not go on to pick up some of the skills they otherwise would have. Also, some of the effects might not come to the surface until the injured part starts to be used. In the same way you might not know you had twisted your ankle until you tried to walk on it, an injury to the brain might not make itself known until that part of the brain came ‘on-line’. Children may make a full physical recovery, but the effects of a brain injury can take weeks, months and sometimes years to come to the surface. It is because these changes and difficulties are hard to spot that ABI is sometimes called ‘the hidden disability’.  

What are the effects when a child suffers a brain injury?

Each child is as unique in the way they respond to a brain injury as they are in every other aspect of their lives. There is an enormous range of difficulties children might face, from minor short-term memory lapses to serious, long-term physical and learning disabilities. Some parents talk about a ‘personality change’ as their child’s behaviour alters after the injury, and this can be deeply distressing for parents. ‘Severe acquired brain injury’, which affects a minority of children with acquired brain injury, may mean children permanently lose the ability to walk or talk. Some may have difficulties eating and drinking. The majority of children with acquired brain are likely to experience some of the more common effects listed below. It is important to remember each child’s experience is different. You might notice some effects immediately, while some may come to the surface weeks, months or even years later:
  • weakness of limbs
  • difficulty speaking
  • tiredness/fatigue
  • change in behaviour
 Click here to read about other effects of brain injury.


How is a child’s brain injury treated?

The brain is the most sophisticated part of our bodies, and so any injury to it can be equally complex. There is no single ‘cure’ or treatment for acquired brain injury. But there are opportunities for children to get back some of the skills they have lost through different therapies and support. Physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and many other approaches may have a part to play. This ongoing process is often called ‘rehabilitation’.
To learn more about how a child might receive therapy click here.  

How does it affect the rest of the family? 

Any illness in the family can have an enormous impact. In the case of acquired brain injury, the initial shock can leave families with a great deal of stress. They might also experience feelings of guilt, uncertainty and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Later on in the healing process, parents and siblings face a distressing time if a child shows changes in their behaviour. Families may feel a sense of loss for the child as they were before the injury. Other children in the family may not fully understand what is happening or may feel left out. It is extremely important that parents remember to look after themselves at this difficult time and seek help and support if they need it. Evidence suggests a supportive family environment can make a positive difference to a child’s recovery. If you are concerned about anyone in your family, ask your GP to help you find appropriate services. If you would like to talk to other families abut childhood brain injury, sign up to our discussion forum.
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