Children who sustained traumatic brain injuries may experience such psychological effects as anxiety, phobias and depression more than a decade later, researchers say.
“The study suggests that brain injury is in some way related to longer-term anxiety symptoms, while previously it was thought that brain injury only leads to short-term effects,” lead author Michelle Albicini said in an email.
The anxiety may have many causes, including actual brain damage or the experience of living in an anxious family environment after the injury, said Albicini, a researcher at Monash University School of Psychological Sciences in Melbourne, Australia.
Albicini’s team found that children with moderately severe brain injuries and girls and women in general were at greater risk for long-term psychological effects compared with boys and children who had milder brain injuries.
Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, occurs when an outside force, usually a blow to the head, causes some kind of brain dysfunction, such as loss of consciousness, amnesia or damage to brain tissue that is visible on a scan.
“While in most cases people recover 100 percent from brain injury, a select few may go on to experience anxiety, depression or other ongoing psychological effects,” Albicini said.
But more research is needed to fully understand the long-term psychological effects faced by people who experience TBI during childhood, the researchers write.
To explore the question, they recruited young adults who had been treated at a New Zealand hospital for a various degrees of TBI when they were children. For comparison, the researchers also recruited a similar group of young adults who were treated for childhood orthopedic injuries such as broken arms or legs but who had no history of brain injury.
The average age at injury for those with mild TBI and those with orthopedic injuries was around 10 to 11; the participants with more-severe TBI were younger — around 7, on average — when they were injured. For most in the study group, it had been at least 10 years since their injury; for some, 15 or more years had passed.
Each person met with a psychologist for diagnostic interviews to screen for psychological disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, phobias and depression. This revealed that compared with people with no brain injuries, those with any type of TBI were five times as likely to have an anxiety disorder.
People with past brain injuries were also about four times as likely to suffer from panic attacks, specific phobias and depression. Those with moderate-severe brain injuries had the highest overall rates of anxiety disorders and were most likely to suffer from multiple anxiety disorders at once.
However, women were four times as likely as men to have an anxiety disorder, regardless of whether they had a brain injury, the authors note.
It is important to keep in mind that the research did not look at the patients’ anxiety before their injury, making it difficult to determine if the anxiety was a complication of the injury, said Jeffrey Max, a psychiatry professor at the University of California at San Diego, who wasn’t involved in the study.