The human brain is probably the most complex, organised computational system in the universe. We need it for many things like breathing and standing upright; like learning new information and altering our behaviour; like keeping our memories and experiencing emotion; like being creative and imagining new solutions to problems. It really is extraordinarily surprising that it does not go wrong more often. Given this complexity, it is easy to see why damage to the brain (from an injury, infection, a drug or interruption to the blood or oxygen supply) can have very different effects. In some cases it can affect how people move or whether or not they are conscious of the outside world at all. For others, it may affect their ability to recognise familiar objects or to read words. Quite commonly, a brain injury may slow down people’s speed of thought, make it more difficult for them to pay attention to and remember details, and to plan and organise their days. At other times, people may show no obvious consequences from brain injury at all.
One of the key features of our brain is the ability to change and learn from experience. You are probably reading this text quite easily… and yet this isn’t a ‘natural’ thing for your brain to be doing, it is something that you had to learn. The process of adapting to different situations does not stop following an injury (although it may be slowed down). Over the following days, weeks, months and even years, the brain continues to adapt, re-learn, and change so that you can again achieve everyday goals such as reading a book, maintaining a relationship or even just making a cup of tea.
There are normally limits to how much the brain will recover following an injury and this will vary from person to person. Rehabilitation research is about understanding natural recovery, why it may vary between people and the processes that may assist or slow it down. It is a very broad category as it refers to any method that helps people to improve their basic function, find ways of getting around persistent difficulties, use aids and devices that will help overcome these problems and ways of helping individuals and their familiar to adapt to problems and deal with the emotional and social consequences.