Nature at its best
Our brain is “packaged” like an egg yolk. It is suspended in the thick glycerin-like cerebral spinal fluid, a shock-absorbing viscous fluid. Because the brain is the consistency of Jell-O®, it conforms to the space inside the skull, regardless of its size. And, it is wrapped in the dura, a thin, rubber-like material that helps keep it all together. Our big advantage over the fragile egg shell, however, is obvious: Our brain is encased in the skull, a rigid, hard case. To add even more protection, the scalp has a give and take so it slides to help deflect a blow. Nature has done an awesome job of protecting our most valuable asset. As good as it is, however, even Nature's best design has limits: If your head is hit hard enough to overcome these protective barriers, the price paid can be horrific.
The (literal) root of the problem
But it doesn’t take a direct blow to the head to have major damage. Our brain sends information through thread-like filaments called axons. Communication signals move from one area in the cortex (the thin, outer layer, “thinking” part of our brain) to another, from the cortex to the brain's deep structures, and from the brain to all parts of the body and back again. This is how our brain talks to itself -- by rapidly connecting, disconnecting, and reconnecting its many specialized areas.
A heavy blow to the head or a whip lash causes a rapid acceleration and deceleration of the brain. The head whips forward (or backward, or sideways), stops abruptly, and then jerks back. Because the thin cortex (the brain's outer layer) and white matter (the brain's bulk) are of different densities, they move at different speeds through the acceleration/ deceleration process. The two types of tissue slip against each other with the sudden forward and rapid motion, and billions of axons can be damaged (axonal bruising) and even clipped and severed (axonal shearing).
Neuroscience at its best
So what do you do when your life is suddenly turned upside down by a brain trauma? In the past, one could only wait, being patient and hopeful as Nature helped heal the damage. Sometimes this was enough, sometimes not. Fortunately, advances in Neuroscience have given even those with severe trauma a much greater chance of recovery and getting his or her life back. What is this break though? How does it work? Can it get me back to work quicker?