Minor head injuries may have lasting effects cautions Fairfield University professor


Lasting effects of head injuries, even minor ones, can go undetected, says Dr. Timothy J. Heitzman, assistant professor of psychology at Fairfield University, who presented the findings of his latest research at the International Neuropsychological Society meeting last month in Portland, Oregon. Given the exposure so many young people have to head injuries, especially through sports and recreation, he says it is important to be aware that a person may seem to regain all his faculties following a concussion, but can have cognitive deficits and emotional distress as a result. In the case with children and adolescents, these deficits may take years to manifest themselves, and become more noticeable as workload in school becomes more challenging. 

While there has been an alarm sounded in the media about the lasting damage to NFL players following repeated concussions -Ted Johnson of the New England Patriots who has suffered significant emotional and cognitive distress comes to mind - Dr. Heitzman’s study is unusual in that many of the participants in his study were young women, and most were not involved in varsity sports. Among 50 students who volunteered to participate in a study to measure their attention and executive functioning skills (e.g., planning and organization) he found that 12, or 24 percent of them, had experienced a head injury one to four years prior to the study, that resulted in a loss of consciousness or memory problems. Many reported they had limited or no medical attention after their injuries.

None of the students reported any lingering problems associated with attention or executive functioning, Dr. Heitzman said, "Nevertheless, when tested with neuropsychological assessment techniques and compared to matched students without a reported history of head injury, the injured students demonstrated significantly worse attention and executive functioning." Although not aware of this cognitive difficulty, they were aware "of emotional distress as they reported significantly greater levels of depressed mood and anxiety and less personal adjustment than non-injured subjects."

Dr. Heitzman recommends that anyone who experiences a head injury should consult with a neuropsychologist to assess and monitor their progress. He points out that because the brain develops as a child grows, a head injury that appears to have no effect on a first-grader, for instance, may result in later cognitive and emotional deficits as the child reaches various stages of development, such as in the fourth or eighth grade, as the academic, social and emotional challenges increase. Likewise, a student who experiences concussions in high school may not struggle significantly at the time but he or she subsequently may notice more trouble paying attention, completing assignments and writing papers in college. 

Dr. Heitzman, whose primary research interests involve developmental neuropsychology and neurodevelopmental disorders, is continuing his research with varsity and recreational athletes who have experienced either diagnosed or undiagnosed head injuries. One of his concerns with younger athletes is their tendency to hide or diminish the effects of a head injury so they will not be sidelined during a game. There is often pressure on the coach as well, to keep a star player in the game following a head injury, as long as the athlete "appears to be OK." Proper equipment for contact sports should also be a priority, Dr. Heitzman says.

Following his doctoral work at the University of Rhode Island, he gained experience in neuropsychology, rehabilitation and pediatric psychology at major institutions, including Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore; Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, NYC; and Children's Hospital, Boston / Harvard Medical School.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on March 5, 2007

Vol. 39, No. 162