Organic Brain Injury

Organic brain syndrome is not a disease in itself. Instead, this term refers to any number of conditions that frequently lead to decreased mental functioning. In general, these conditions are more common in older people, although the young are by no means immune. No matter what their cause, they often have devastating effects on patients and those who care for them.

Organic brain syndrome can be brought on by numerous factors. Traumatic injury to the brain because of an assault, an automobile crash or some other incident that causes an open or closed head injury can lead to bleeding in the brain (intracerebral hemorrhage), or bleeding into the space around the brain (subarachnoid hemorrhage). Other factors that can lead to organic brain syndrome include blood clots, concussion, breathing problems such as low oxygen levels (hypoxia) or dangerously high amounts of carbon dioxide in the body (hypercapnia), cardiovascular difficulties (such as arrhythmias, hypertensive brain injury from high blood pressure, or the adverse effects of stroke), or dementia. In addition, organic brain syndrome can be brought on by infections such as septicemia, encephalitis and meningitis. Senile dementia, drug and alcohol abuse, diseases in the body, and even vitamin deficiency are just a few of the other conditions that can be catalysts for organic brain syndrome.

If a patient or family member suspects that a person is suffering from organic brain syndrome, it is useful to take note of the specific symptoms the patient may be displaying. Any departure from normal functioning or behavior is worth noting. In addition, there are several general signs that may appear. The person may be extremely agitated and tense, possibly even hostile. He or she may be confused and unable to think with the usual speed or clarity. Also, he or she may be disoriented and unable to concentrate or pay attention. Memory and decision-making abilities might also be impaired. Daily routine tasks such as driving, running a household, or conducting business may suffer. It is also often the case that short or long term memory can be affected, leading to a diminished capacity to process and retain information. One of the most extreme symptoms of this syndrome is dementia, which is generally not reversible and adversely affects memory, judgment, language, behavior, problem-solving ability, and overall independent functioning. Although often occurring in old age, dementia can also be brought on by serious infection or prolonged drug or alcohol abuse. As it progresses, the patient is gradually robbed of his or her ability to judge, think, behave appropriately, and sometimes even to express thoughts or feelings.

If organic brain syndrome is suspected, there are a number of diagnostic tools that can be brought to bear. The first priority is to consult a medical professional. Ignoring these symptoms can not only lead to a delay in getting help, but can often mean that the patient looses even more functioning, sometimes permanently. Taking time to find a doctor and/or gerontologist who is well-versed in issues affecting the brain is essential. Once that person or team has been found, it is of primary importance to share any anecdotal evidence of changes in behavior or the onset of other abnormal symptoms. As a result of this preliminary consultation, a physician or other professional may administer tests to gauge cognitive ability, as well as evaluative tools such as head CT scans, MRI, or blood work.

After the results are compiled, the patient, care-givers, and medical professionals can meet to discuss the findings and to make a plan for treatment. At any juncture in this process, it is important to keep in mind that a second opinion should be sought if the patient or care-givers believe it is warranted, for whatever reason. Any loyalty to a physician based on respect or a long-standing relationship should always be balanced by the need to be totally comfortable with the progress of treatment. The unfortunate fact is, however, that many of the symptoms of organic brain syndrome often cannot be “cured” or reversed. Instead, the patient and his or her family members will embark on a course of treatment in which strategies are taught that will enable the patient to compensate for areas of functioning that have been lost and enhance the abilities that remain. Finally, it may be of some comfort to know that great strides are being made by scientists seeking to understand the inner workings and functions of the brain. As they arrive at ways to apply this ever-expanding knowledge to the real world, patients will continue to benefit from their innovations.