Bipartisan support for the Traumatic Brain Injury Reauthorization Act

With Republicans and Democrats divided on so many policy issues, it is gratifying to see the parties agree on an approach to a serious public health problem — traumatic brain injury (TBI). In June, the House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 1098, the Traumatic Brain Injury Reauthorization Act (TBIRA), legislation to reauthorize programs that will provide resources for those with traumatic brain injury while also affording an investment in education and research around traumatic brain injury prevention. The bill now moves to the Senate, where we hope it will receive equally favorable treatment.

Traumatic brain injury affects nearly 2 million Americans each year, of all ages and all walks of life. Those with TBI include our nation's war fighters, children and teens injured while playing sports or in car crashes, and seniors hurt in a fall.

Now is an especially auspicious time to focus attention and resources on issues related to brain injury. The science is advancing quickly, giving those diagnosed with TBI and their families new reason for hope.

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Here's why. Until recently, the conventional wisdom among scientists was that the brain had, at most, one year to recover from a traumatic injury. After that, it was thought, a person could no longer continue to make progress improving their brain function and regaining lost skills.

But our research at the Center for BrainHealth shows that this idea is outdated and should be abandoned. The brain is remarkable for its plasticity, or ability to be changed, modified and repaired. The brain makes new cells, forms new connections, and strengthens old connections every day.

It is important to monitor individuals who have been diagnosed with TBI longitudinally, like we monitor those diagnosed with cancer to make sure they stay in remission. However, simply studying the later-emerging consequences of concussions is only part of the solution. We now know the brain can continue to recover for months — even years — after injury with the right interventions. The Center for BrainHealth in Dallas is developing strategies that teach people how to manage and use information more effectively — what we call "brain training." These strategies show promise in strengthening overall brain function in many of those affected by TBI. We are finding that cognitive losses can be regained, or at least mitigated.

For example, we have developed a cutting-edge cognitive intervention called Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) to teach individuals of all ages how to more effectively assimilate, manage and use information in health, after injury or disease diagnoses. These cognitive skills are crucial both to academic success in teens and to enhancing overall brain performance in professional careers and personal lives across the lifespan.

Our research has shown that the SMART program is extremely helpful to both teens and adults suffering from the lasting effects of a sports concussion or other injury. The National Institutes of Health and private philanthropists funded a research project to determine whether a month of the SMART program could help these kids regain their ability to think more deeply and meaningfully. What was found was that no matter the severity of the injury or the amount of time since the injury, cognitive performance improved when teens were taught how to strategically process incoming information in a meaningful way, instead of just focusing on specific mental processes such as memory.

Similarly, peer-reviewed research from the Center for BrainHealth has shown that guided brain training significantly improves higher-order cognitive performance in civilian adults with TBI. Through a Department of Defense funded grant, we are now studying whether this training can benefit our young warriors returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq. We expect this program to enhance our veterans' mental productivity and to improve their cognitive capacity, helping them feel more in control of their lives.

While we are excited by the potential of our research to improve the lives — and cognitive function — of those affected by TBI, we need and welcome allies at the federal level in this fight.

Those with TBI and their families need access to treatment, education and support throughout their rehabilitation period. Hospitals, rehab centers and medical providers need the capacity to deliver timely, appropriate and up-to-date interventions when faced with TBI cases. And research institutions need support as they continue to look for effective ways to diagnose and treat TBI and to prevent future cases.

That is why passage of TBIRA is so important, and why bipartisan cooperation on the House side is so heartening. The bill provides the needed framework for a national, coordinated approach to assist those with TBI and their families, to ensure that states have the capacity to deliver services to those affected by TBI, and to continue research into the causes of TBI and effective interventions.

We applaud the leadership of Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), co-chairs of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, for their hard work in getting TBIRA through the House of Representatives. They have shown that dealing with traumatic brain injury can transcend politics. Enactment of this bipartisan legislation would be a victory for both parties, and for all Americans affected by TBI.

Chapman, Ph.D., is the founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.