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The panelists talk during the Longevity Project event on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, at TACAW in Willits.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) impact millions of people in the United States every year, but here in the valley, the number is higher than the national average. When Allison Pattillo, The Aspen Times publisher, asked the audience at The Longevity Project event, to raise their hands if they’ve had a brain injury, several hands rose.

Colorado ranks ninth in the country for TBI-related fatalities and 13th for TBI-related hospitalizations, according to Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado. A study from Craig Hospital estimates that Region 12 of Colorado, which consists of Pitkin, Eagle, Summit, Jackson and Grand counties, ranks No. 1 for TBIs when adjusted for the population.

For this reason, The Longevity Project, an annual campaign dedicated to educating readers on what it takes to live a long, healthy life in the high country, focused on Brain Health and Injury.

On Thursday, Nov. 10, The Longevity Project event was held at TACAW and included panelists who are experts on brain health. The event and series was a joint campaign between The Aspen Times and Glenwood Post Independent.

The panelists included Dr. Kathy Beauchamp, neurosurgeon at CU School of Medicine at Denver Health; Dr. Kerry Brega, neurosurgeon at CU School of Medicine Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center; Dr. Krista Fox, occupational therapist and certified brain injury specialist at Aspen Valley Hospital; and Dr. John Hughes, founder of Aspen Integrative Medicine. Lee Tuchfarber, founder and CEO of Renew Senior Communities, moderated the panel discussion.

The doctors discussed the topic of brain injuries broadly, sharing insights on how concussions are diagnosed, myths about brain injuries, the latest advancements in research, and how brain injuries are currently treated.

What is a brain injury?

The brain has over 100 billion nerves in the central nervous system, all working together to control everything happening in the body. Dr. Brega described the brain as an old-time switchboard, back when operators had to transfer calls with numerous plug-ins and extensions.

With this, she described a brain injury as one or multiple of those plugs getting rattled, causing “service” to temporarily disrupt.

The plug-in analogy also serves as a way to explain how different brain injuries are from person-to-person, or how brain injuries may impact the same person different over time. Simply put, not everyone who experiences a brain injury will rattle the same plugs.

This variance leads those impacted by brain injuries to have very different symptoms and experiences, making it a challenging injury for doctors to diagnose.

How are brain injuries diagnosed?

Diagnosing concussions has come a long way within the decade, yet the process remains fairly subjective. While Dr. Hughes describes a brain injury as a bomb that goes off in the brain, the injury comes down to a molecular level, leaving concussions to go undetected on CT scans.

“By definition, if you can see blood on a CT scan, you don’t have a concussion,” Dr. Beauchamp said. “You have a mild to moderate or complex mild brain injury.”

Years before, loss of consciousness was considered the only way to determine if someone has endured a brain injury, according to Dr. Brega. Doctors now know that loss of consciousness can mean a brain injury has occurred, but it is widely understood that being knocked out is not the only indicator. In fact, according to Brega, most TBI patients that she sees do not experience loss of consciousness.

Therefore, when trying to diagnose a brain injury, doctors rely on a patients symptoms. This is tricky, considering brain injury symptoms vary greatly. Those who experience a brain injury may endure mood swings, headaches, trouble focusing, changes in their balance or vision, changes in the inner ear and more.

Many who experience a brain injury may not even register that a TBI has occurred. Months can go by before a person seeks treatment for their injury. Therefore, doctors recommend seeking treatment as soon as possible, in order to speed up the recovery process.

How are brain injuries treated?

With the varying symptoms and range of TBI injuries, the process for treating the injury varies as well. According to Dr. Fox, a doctor’s job is to find out which system is the most impacted and how to best treat that one system.

A brain injury is completely unlike other injuries in the body, and not every brain injury is the same. This makes treating a brain injury completely unlike treating other kinds of injuries.

“A lot of doctors will tell their patients to go home and re​​st, but the brain doesn’t rest. Not like other body parts,” said Dr. Hughes. “Your brain is always working.”

With this, Dr. Fox recommends patients, particularly those who are were very active, to do some form of physical activity soon after they’ve been injured, if they can.

The recovery process for brain injuries may range from a few months to the rest of one’s life. Therefore, treating a brain injury is an ongoing process for many, according to Dr. Hughes.

“The beauty of neuroplasticity is that you can always improve,” said Dr. Fox.

The future of diagnosis

While the current state of diagnosing brain injuries remains fairly subjective, advancements in medicine are still undergoing. The future of diagnosis may look like an app on your phone or the use of virtual reality goggles.

For now, a huge breakthrough in medicine is the change in perception of concussions.

Years ago, if one had a concussion, it was thought of as not that big of a deal. Now, the issue of concussions are gaining more pertinence.

“I think we’ve made enormous strides diagnosing it as we are, with the symptoms that we know, and the mechanisms that we know, and teaching everybody that it “that is a concussion” and that needs to be treated as a serious issue,” said Brega.

Dr. Brega suggested there are endless studies striving to create tests to definitively diagnose a concussion. However, many tests are still in their infancy.

According to Dr. Fox, there were two tests that were recently FDA approved. When those tests will be widely available, remains unknown.

To reach Kristen Mohammadi, call 304-650-2404 or email