Traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients may recover more function after longer and more intensive rehabilitation sessions, according to researchers.

The scientists, from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, studied rats relearning skills and physical abilities following a TBI. They found rats that received intensive therapy for an extended period of time showed significant restructuring of the brain around the damage site: Surviving neurons sprouted greater numbers of dendritic spines, which made more connections with other neurons.

The result was a 50% recovery of function, according to senior study author Mark Tuszynski, MD, PhD, professor in the Department of Neurosciences and director of the Center for Neural Repair at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and a neurologist with the VA San Diego Healthcare System, in a media release from University of California, San Diego Health Sciences.

“This has implications for medical practice and medical insurance,” Tuszynski says in the release. “Typically, insurance supports brief periods of rehab to teach people to get good enough to go home. These findings suggest that if insurance would pay for longer and more intensive rehab, patients might actually recover more function.”

The rats that did not undergo the intensive rehabilitation did not rebuild brain structure or recover function, per the release.

The researchers also note that the basal forebrain cholinergic system is critical to rehabilitation. Structures in this part of the brain, such as the nucleus basalis, produce acetylcholine, a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other cells. Specifically, motor neurons release acetylcholine to activate muscles.

Damage to the cholinergic system blocks brain plasticity mediated by rehabilitation and reduces functional recovery. Tuszynski notes in the release that this suggests that certain drugs that help treat Alzheimer’s disease may further improve function in TBI patients.

“We did not try to do this in our study,” Tuszynski says, “but we did suggest future studies could be done to look at this possibility.”

The study was published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[Source(s): University of California, San Diego Health Sciences, Science Daily]