How do you know if your brain is functioning normally?
Until recently, unless you’ve had a head injury, or suffered some sort of health event that affected your thinking or your mood, chances are no-one will have checked to see what’s going on inside your head.
Other than being an eight-letter word, recovery means different things to different people, depending on your choice of perspective. We talk about getting back on our feet, being fit for task or work ready – but do the evaluations you’ve undertaken truly reflect how you think your brain is working, because even minor events can have a significant impact on brain function in both the short and longer term?
Having recently sustained a concussion, I can vouch for the fact that while the event was minor; I was not knocked out and was able to carry out my normal day to day tasks, I knew my brain didn’t feel right. Beyond the associated nausea and light-headedness, I was having real trouble thinking properly.
I couldn’t work out simple math, I couldn’t face using a computer and felt incapable of reading and assimilating information from some journals I had put to one side to read and inwardly digest. Worse still I was making some silly mistakes that my family called me out on and had me questioning my future cognitive ability!
Several months later the symptoms have long abated, but how can I be sure my cognition has completely recovered?
Medical imaging or a neuropsychological assessment is unlikely to be of any benefit here, but what if there was some kind of test to help here.
This is important because following injury or illness, it’s not unusual to experience stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue or difficulty making decisions. All of which can affect cognitive performance, and worrying about these compounds the problem!
The short answer is, help is at hand. Cogstate, Cognisense and Cantab Insight reflect a growing number of online cognitive assessment tools specifically designed for this purpose. For example, Cambridge Cognition, a UK based neuroscience digital health company has developed a number of products to assess cognitive health and wellbeing, including Cantab Insight. This test for 18 to 55 year olds, looks at five different areas of cognitive function including executive function, episodic memory, working memory, processing speed and attention. The aim is to detect any sign of clinically relevant memory impairment at the earliest possible stage and as importantly to differentiate any symptoms from a mood disorder such as depression.
The reassurance of knowing all is well then opens up the opportunity for a discussion around how emotion and stress impact cognition and what has been found useful to manage these effectively.
Uncertainty, anxiety, or that little niggle of doubt stymie self-confidence because it initiates a threat response in the brain resulting in an overactive autonomic system hair-trigger sensitive to any further risk of danger, putting the individual at risk of further maladaptive response.
Rebuilding confidence comes first from providing the understanding there is no underlying pathology.
Secondly, encourage activities such as physical exercise that enhance mood and levels of feel-good hormones including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. When we enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing and calm, it’s far easier to step up to the challenge before us.
Thirdly encourage action, because there is no greater proof than being able to demonstrate your own ability to undertake a task.
Dr. Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner, speaker and author of Future Brain (Wiley) specialising in cognitive health and mental performance www.drjennybrockis.com