08:45am Thursday 21 September 2017

Brain injury researchers turn attention to young people

Dr Nicola Starkey

Dr Nicola Starkey: Promoting awareness about traumatic brain injury (TBI), as part of Head Injury Awareness Week.

As part of Head Injury Awareness Week, Waikato University’s Dr Nicola Starkey and research officer Rosalind Case will join other agencies and organisations at Nawton shopping centre on Tuesday June 7 to get the message out about the symptoms and potential impact of brain injuries.

Dr Starkey says head injury – or traumatic brain injury (TBI) as it’s technically known – is very common.

“Brain injury can happen to anyone at any time – in a car crash or while playing sports, as well as through assaults and falls,” she says.

“Up to 95% of all TBIs are mild– what is often called concussion, affecting around 24,000 New Zealanders each year, but there’s very little information available on the social and healthcare implications of TBI for sufferers and their families.”

Typical signs of mild TBI are seeing stars, loss of consciousness and not remembering what happened. Mild TBI can lead to fatigue, poor memory, long-lasting headaches, irritability and inability to concentrate.

Over the past year, Dr Starkey with colleagues at AUT and Auckland University has collated information on every incident of head injury in the Waikato region in a study funded by the Health Research Council.

New funding totaling nearly $350,000 from the HRC and the Lotteries Grants Board means the researchers can now extend the study to focus on the impact of TBI on young people and their families.

“This will be the first longitudinal study of children with mild TBI,” says Dr Starkey. “Social behaviour is very complex, and deficits resulting from TBI can have a big impact on children and adolescents. They can end up in the wrong crowd, where they are more at risk from drugs, alcohol and crime.”

One study will focus on the 8- to 16-year-olds identified with mild TBI in the initial research. The researchers will focus on social behaviour and school-related functioning for up to two years after the initial injury.

“We’ll be looking at how these kids manage their emotions, how they cope with planning and organisation,” says Dr Starkey. “The injury may not alter their behaviour at the time, but it may have an impact further down the line.”

Another study will examine the impact of brain injury on school-related functioning in younger children, aged five to 11.

Research officer Rosalind Case, who has been awarded a $250,000 HRC clinical research fellowship to conduct the study with Dr Starkey, will work with local schools to follow the progress of children with mild TBI compared with a matched control group of unaffected children.

“We’ll be asking teachers and parents for their impressions of the childrens’ classroom behaviour and academic achievement,” says Ms Case. “Previous research indicates that TBI can prevent children from reaching normal developmental milestones, so we hope this study will add to what we know about the long-term impact of TBI.”


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