Traumatic brain injury (TBI) encompasses a wide range of injuries, neurological problems, and outcomes. On one end of the spectrum is a concussion, which can be mild and short lasting. At the other end of the spectrum, traumatic brain injury can be lethal or leave patients with chronic mental and physical problems. Despite this range of severities, traumatic brain injury is one of the leading causes of disability in the United States, affecting over 13 million people. People who suffer from chronic symptoms related to traumatic brain injury may struggle with chronic seizures, memory problems, concentration problems, agitation, among others. TBI can have profoundly worsened a person’s quality of life and overall well-being.
Unfortunately, little can be done to treat traumatic brain injury directly. Aside from treating symptoms, the main treatment for TBI is to have the patient to rest and avoid stimulation in an effort to give the brain time to heal. Patients can regain some function through intensive work with physical, occupational, speech, and recreational therapist. However, the brain’s ability to heal itself is limited compared to other tissues of the body. In short, the brain has very little capacity to make new brain cells after we are born. So once TBI has occurred, patients either need to depend on other healthy areas of the brain or simply adapt to their circumstances.
Fortunately, researchers are finding ways to improve on nature through hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Drs. Shandley, Wolf and other hyperbaric medicine researchers recruited a group of 28 military veterans who sustained a traumatic brain injury in Iraq or Afghanistan. These individuals had ongoing cognitive problems as a result of their brain injuries. Researchers placed some study participants in 2.4 atm avoid hundred percent oxygen, while the others simply underwent a placebo experience at basically normal pressure and oxygen levels. The two groups underwent 30 exposures each and took a cognitive test before and after these treatments.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy increased the number of stem cells in the blood of patients with TBI. In other words, hyperbaric oxygen treatment was able to move stem cells from the bone marrow and perhaps other tissues into the bloodstream. At the same time, those treated with hyperbaric oxygen performed better on tests of cognition including ImPACT, BrainCheckers, and PCL-M test. Moreover, no adverse effects of treatment were observed. Taken together, these results suggest 30 sessions of hyperbaric oxygen treatment at 2.4 atm was able to increase stem cells in the blood and improve cognition in US warfighters who suffered traumatic brain injury during combat. These results are encouraging news for the millions of veterans and nonveterans who sustained a traumatic brain injury every year.
Reference: Shandley, S. et al. (2017). Increased circulating stem cells and better cognitive performance in traumatic brain injury subjects following hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society. 2017 May-Jun;44(3):257-269.