Traumatic Brain Injuries and Nutrition

Could people with traumatic brain injuries benefit from micronutrients to help with their emotional dysregulation?

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Not just a knock on the head

A Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is caused by a trauma to the head that can cause damage to the brain. Data shows that the majority of TBIs are received from car accidents and falls. This makes children highly vulnerable.

TBIs can be hard to diagnose. It is not uncommon for people to brush off a knock on the head as just that and not expect any consequences.  This makes it difficult to know exactly how many people experience issues due to the injury. Brain Injury New Zealand reports that 1 person suffers an injury every 15 minutes, that is 35,040 brain injuries per year in New Zealand alone.

Psychological consequences of TBIs

Symptoms can vary depending on where the damage occurred in the brain and the severity of the trauma. Some people with these types of injuries can experience learning difficulties, aggression, apathy, moodiness, anxiety and irritability.

A common outcome can be a general difficulty in regulation emotions – also called emotional dysregulation. This can severely impair the ability to self- control and develop resilience. Lack of self- control and resilience can lead to social difficulties in adulthood (social functioning [1], inhibitory control [2], self-control [3]).

Could nutrition support recovery?

One of the common observations we have made in our research using micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is that people report feeling calmer and more regulated. This led us to wonder – could people with a TBI benefit from these additional nutrients to help with their emotional dysregulation?

At this stage, we really don’t know.

A case study with a single participant showed that micronutrients had some benefits on the participant’s ability to regulate their emotions. The participant, a 38-year-old man, suffered a traumatic brain injury eight years before the treatment and showed evidence of substantial improvement after taking micronutrients for just 3 months [4].

Research is still very new, so we first need to conduct a study that helps us determine if this is a viable way forward for people with TBI to manage their emotions.

What are micronutrients?

It might surprise you that micronutrients are not usually manufactured by pharmaceutical companies. They are found in the food we eat and are essential for the good functioning of our bodies and minds. The combination we use in our trials at Te Puna Toiora, the Mental Health and Nutrition lab, are just that. The micronutrients are just in higher concentrations than what we are able to ingest through food.

What is our lab doing to advance the science?

We have developed a study to look at the acceptability of micronutrients and to see whether they have any effect on the psychological experiences of a sample of 15 children with a TBI.

Our hope is to discover whether taking micronutrients will support these children in regulating their emotions.

Children will need to take up to 9 pills a day for 6 months. Every month, we will conduct interviews using questionnaires. The responses will help us understand whether the nutrients lead to changes in behaviour.

We are looking for children who are:

  • Medication free
  • Between 6 and 13 years old
  • Have suffered the injury more than twelve months ago that has been lodged with ACC
  • Appearing to have difficulty regulating their emotions
  • Residing in Christchurch, New Zealand

If you are interested in finding out more or know someone who is, please contact Sophie on 021877255 or email: ssw38@uclive.ac.nz.


References

[1] Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Guthrie, I. K., & Reiser, M. (2000). Dispositional emotionality and regulation: their role in predicting quality of social functioning. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(1), 136

[2] Rhoades, B. L., Greenberg, M. T., & Domitrovich, C. E. (2009). The contribution of inhibitory control to preschoolers’ social–emotional competence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30(3), 310-320

[3] Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., … & Sears, M. R. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693-2698.

[4] Kaplan BJ, Leaney C, Tsatsko E. Micronutrient Treatment of Emotional Dyscontrol Following Traumatic Brain Injury. Annals of Psychiatry and Mental Health 2016;4(5):1078.

Sophie Waretini is a Masters student at Te Puna Toiora: Mental Health and Nutrition Research group at the University of Canterbury.