A college education may do a lot more than provide better job opportunities — it may also make brains more resilient to trauma, a new study suggests.
The more years of education people have, the more likely they will recover from a traumatic brain injury, according to the study published Wednesday in Neurology.
In fact, one year after a traumatic brain injury, people with a college education were nearly four times as likely as those who hadn't finished high school to return to work or school with no disability.
Earlier studies had shown that education might have a protective effect when it comes to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's. Scientists have theorized that education leads to greater "cognitive reserve," which allows people to overcome or compensate for brain damage.
So if there are two people with the same degree of damage from Alzheimer's, the more highly educated one will show fewer symptoms. The assumption is that education changes and expands the brain, leaving it better able to cope with challenges.
"Added capacity allows us to either work around the damaged areas or to adapt," said Eric B. Schneider, an assistant professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Schneider and his colleagues suspected that cognitive reserve might play an equally important role in helping people rehab from acute brain damage that results from falls, car crashes and other accidents as it does in Alzheimer's disease.
For the new study, the researchers examined the medical records of 769 people who were at least 23 years old when they sustained a moderate to severe traumatic brain injury.
One year after their injuries, 28 percent of the patients had no disability and were able to return to work or school. Only 10 percent of those with no high school diploma were free of disability, as compared to 31 percent of those with some college education, and 39 percent of those with a college degree.
The findings confirm what brain injury specialists have suspected, said Dr. Douglas Smith, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. But the study doesn't explain what, exactly, is going on in the brain.
"It either means the highly educated brain has better strategies for recovery, or masks disabilities better than the less educated brain," Smith said. "It might be like the difference between losing an engine on a jet with four engines versus a jet with two."