New AUT research partnership tackles traumatic brain injury

Saturday 4 June 2011, 7:43AM
By AUT University


Natural disasters leave devastating scars on the landscape, but the injuries people sustain are not always as visible.

During the recent Christchurch earthquake there was a significant spike in the number of spinal cord injuries with 22 recorded on the day when the yearly average is 110.

AUT University Professor of Rehabilitation Kathryn McPherson, says one of the other ‘invisible’ injuries many people will have sustained during the earthquake is traumatic brain injury.

Head injury awareness week takes place this month from June 7 – 14 and according to ACC figures, each year there are between 16,500-22,500 medically attended incidences of traumatic brain injury (TBI).

McPherson - who heads AUT’s new centre of rehabilitation research - says actual TBI numbers following recent natural disasters may never be known.

“As yet we don’t know how many people sustained TBI because it can be missed in the face of more obvious injuries. Many people with mild TBI never even seek medical help,” says McPherson.

Researchers at AUT University are currently conducting a number of studies exploring new ways of helping people recover after TBI, including one targeted at helping people regain energy and motivation to set and achieve goals.

“It is sometimes thought that motivation is a personality trait – something you either have, or don’t. We found many people find it hard to achieve what they want to after brain injury, partly because the skills most of us take for granted that help us identify what is important and work towards it (like motivation), can be damaged.”

Currently 80 people who’ve had a significant brain injury over the past five years have been recruited for a study which looks at new ways to help people regain these skills. This is one of the largest trials of clinical rehabilitation in TBI currently underway internationally and results could make a real difference to the way rehabilitation is delivered after brain injury. The research team are looking for another 20 participants in the Auckland and Hamilton areas.

McPherson says the team have been amazed at some of the enormous strides made by their participants.

“People who have been at home for years with TV as their main activity and companion have re-engaged in their communities for the first time. In fact, some people have taken up voluntary roles, or gone back to work.”

AUT University has recently partnered with ABI Rehabilitation New Zealand to establish a new Centre for Rehabilitation Research and Practice. ABI was the first specialist provider in New Zealand dedicated to brain injury rehabilitation and specialises in early intervention and intensive rehabilitation for TBI and stroke.

Max Cavit, founder of ABI Rehabilitation, says the new centre is a positive step and recognises a collaboration with AUT formed over the past three years.

“We are especially interested in research which impacts upon the real world and affects the quality of services that are delivered to clients and families. The New Zealand health system is very siloed, right from the funder level through to individual providers. The work of AUT and Kathryn McPherson’s team has been a catalyst for bringing people together. AUT is seen as the leader in rehabilitation research and we are very excited about working with them”.