This is the story of how we discovered an entirely new way to quickly and effectively eliminate traumatic brain injury (TBI) symptoms. It's also a story about how breakthrough research really happens.
For those of you who don't know anything about TBI, the scope of the problem is truly shocking. And it can happen in an instant: from falls, car accidents, sports injuries, casualties of war or acts of crime, and a host of other causes. In the US alone, every year 85,000 people get a lasting disability. In the UK, 1.3 million people live with head injury disabilities. And sadly, the treatment options are poor. Mild TBI symptoms may decrease with time - but the more severely affected retain symptoms such as attention or memory problems; impaired coordination and balance; impaired hearing, vision, or touch; and anxiety, depression, impulse control, or personality changes. Trying to retrain the undamaged portions of their brain usually only has mixed results. The future is very bleak for many people with TBI.
The autism connection
OK, back to our story. In 2000, Dr. Deola Perry and I had just come up with a treatment for autism - and it actually eliminated symptoms for several of the children we tested it on (you can see a fascinating testimonial 10 years later on this webpage). But we dropped the project because we simply didn't understand the underlying biology well enough to improve the process, and so we went on to other projects.
In 2008 or so I decided to give autism another serious try. I was fortunate to have had an excellent research team who were willing to volunteer their scarce time on this project (Kasia Prasalek, Matt Fox, and several others were involved). We were stuck in understanding the biology of the disease, so the first thought I had was that perhaps autism might be due to some kind of brain damage. To test this hypothesis, we needed a way to eliminate brain damage; once we had that, we'd then test it on our autistic volunteers and see if it made any difference. Although this sounds like we were just switching one impossible job for another, we figured that TBI might be a more straightforward problem to solve.
Developing the TBI technique
Now comes the interesting bits from my perspective as a researcher. To make the analysis simpler, we started with patients who had obvious 'before and after' changes from blows to the head. The first key step was to find a 'marker' for their injuries; in other words, a way to measure the location, extent and severity of the brain damage. We needed it to measure how well our treatments might work, as well as to make testing of new approaches fast and repeatable. Although client self-reporting was important to make sure our marker was valid, it wasn't good enough to develop processes to study modifications to their underlying brain biology. Now, if we'd had tons of money, we would have simply used MRIs and their ilk. But as we're doing all this on a shoestring out of our own pockets with volunteers, we needed a measurement method that was free, or at least very cheap. And we soon found one.
It turns out that there is a 'peak ability' that can be used to actually see brain damage in a person. (At this point, you might simply roll your eyes and quit reading as this simply sounds impossible, and I would not blame you! So, for the time being, just pretend that we were using some expensive high tech gear, which we would have rather used anyway if we could have afforded it.) This 'view' of the brain looked a lot like looking at an X-ray, with light and dark areas. The dark areas were where damage was; and the darker the area, the worse the damage. So we looked at a bunch of people with and without symptoms and were able to verify our marker was valid. OK, first step accomplished!
Next, to the heart of the process. Our idea was that, in people with TBI, the original pattern for the growth of the brain was defective due to epigenetic (generational) and biographical trauma in very early development. And so people's brain matter would be susceptible to brain damage later in life. If true, we could regress people to the origin of the brain and heal any trauma at that moment; and the brain would then repair itself in the present. Of course, all this was pretty 'iffy', but we believed we might have some chance of success, and it was worth trying.
Restoring brain 'resilience'
But let me explain our approach in a different way. Imagine that a row of people are all severely banged on the head with exactly the same force in exactly the same place. Our natural assumption is that these people would all get roughly the same symptoms. However, this is not the case. Instead, some would be severely injured and not recover, some would have short lived symptoms, but some would have no effect at all! There is a huge range in response to severe head injuries. This small percentage of people who won't get symptoms (other than bruises) from head blows are called 'resilient' in the literature.
And our new process worked! In May 2009 our first TBI process was finished. What I found really interesting was that you could feel your brain actually rebuilding itself, taking about an hour, and any TBI symptoms would immediately vanish. So, all excited, we tried it on our severely autistic patients. But it was a total failure. Whatever autism was, it was not due to brain damage. So, with a sense of disappointment I put this new TBI process aside and we kept on researching autism.
Yes, we just put this cool new technique that not only worked, but worked amazingly well to eliminate all symptoms of TBI in everyone we tried it on, to just gather dust on a shelf. But why? Well, several reasons. Back then, I simply did not know how common TBI was, nor how hard it was to treat. This was years before football injuries brought TBI into public awareness, and so I wrongly assumed that we'd simply developed an effective but a rarely needed technique. In fact, none of us realized how important it was - and after all, we were working on autism, not TBI. The other reason is more surprising. In later years, I tried to interest various groups and organizations to consider our approach for TBI. However, I simply could not get them to even try the technique. Apparently this whole approach was too far outside the comfort zone of the people involved. I personally continued to use it on clients who needed it, but basically gave up on pushing it any further.
Making it better
But let's take a moment and go back to what interests me personally, the technique itself and how it continued to evolve. When I designed the process, I had looked at a bunch of healthy people to use as my gold standard for healing. So, visually, this meant that a patient's brain would lose any shadowed or dark areas and return to a light, milky color. But in 2012 or so I noticed something really interesting. A client used the technique and his brain went past the usual light white color endpoint and became fully transparent! It turned out that the process could make the brain even more resilient and healthy than in merely symptom-free people. Too, I felt that the original technique was slow and complicated for people with brain disabilities, taking 6 hours or more. So in the summer of 2016, based on other work I was doing at the time, I was able to greatly simplify the process from 6 steps to only 2 steps and it would now reliably make the brain look transparent. Remember, all this was a side project - it was really tough to find the time to test these changes on staff, therapists, and then on clients as it takes precious volunteer time away from our other higher priority tasks. And then in the fall of 2017, again based on other work I was doing, I came up with an entirely different approach for TBI that was even simpler. And in the spring of 2018, the testing showed that it was even faster and easier to use.
Getting this to the world
So, how about getting this out into the world? Well, in the spring of 2017, Dr. Mary Pellicer (an old colleague from the early days of the Institute) and I were chatting and in passing I mentioned our TBI process. She was shocked. It turned out that she was on a board of an organization that worked with TBI, and she knew exactly how big a problem it was from her own experience. So, over the next 9 months she started to test it to see if it was exactly as I claimed. (She is an MD in the US, but a lot of her work is for governmental and private organizations testing the outcomes of their projects.) So, she duplicated the testing we'd done years ago, and was amazed. (You can see the case study webpage videos she and her colleague Karen Hayworth in the UK have done if you are interested.)
To end this blog, from a research perspective the TBI process is now just about as simple as it is possible to make it. However, there are a couple of very interesting questions still. First of all, can we adapt this process for 'shaken baby' injuries with preverbal children? Or is there any way to do this process with people unconscious from a concussion? (It turns out that theoretically there is a way, but it would need testing.) Or how about clients with cerebral palsy? (So far, we simply have not seen any of them to test it on.) And what about stroke patients? So, there are lots of interesting questions still to be answered, but again, it all depends on whether this process ever gets out to the public, so we can start to pay our staff to do the research. But I will leave you with this interesting bit - if you reflect on our model for a moment, you'll soon realize that this process can be used proactively as if it were a vaccine. It can be used to make a person resilient before they are injured! And in fact, this actually works.
And here's a quick plug - you can find an Institute therapist, of course on a 'pay for results' basis, to help you or your loved ones. Or if you know of some organization that would be interested in our work, please contact us. We would really like to get this out in the world to help people who are unnecessarily suffering from TBI symptoms.
It is a truly amazing time we live in.
From the desk of the research director,
Dr. Grant McFetridge
March 20, 2018