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Introduction to brain disorders

Information Services

Types of brain disorders

Introduction to brain disorders

Almost everything we do, say and think is controlled by our brain, so when our brain is injured it has the potential to affect every aspect of life.

Brain disorders are often called the hidden disability because there can be serious problems with our behaviour and ability to think, and yet there is often no visible physical change with many brain disorders - so problems can be easily ignored or misunderstood. Even a traumatic brain injury may leave no visible scars to indicate an injury too, place. 


Sometimes a person will find even their family members see them as being lazy or hard to get along with, when these are caused by the brain disorder itself.


Over two million Australians are affected with some form of brain disorder - that's over one in 12 according to statistics from the World Health Organization.



A brain disorder is not an intellectual disability. Intelligence is usually not affected, although there are usually cognitive changes such as problems with memory, concentration and attention. It is also not a mental illness, although it can increase the chances of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.


A brain disorder occurs when there is damage or disruption to the brain after birth, such as:

-       Falls, accidents, assault, concussion and other trauma

-       Stroke and other vascular diseases

-       lack of oxygen (e.g. near drowning)

-       Alzheimer's disease and other dementias

-       Degenerative diseases (e.g. dementia, Parkinson's disease)

-       Parkinson's disease

-       Alcohol and other drugs

-       Brain tumours

-       Epilepsy

-       Infections and diseases (e.g. meningitis).


A brain disorder can affect anyone, but unfortunately it is often the most vulnerable people in the community affected, such as Indigenous Australians, homeless people and survivors of domestic violence.



Long-term effects will be different for each person, and will also vary depending on the type of brain disorder. For example, disorders such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis will leave our cognition (e.g. our ability to think) intact, but have dramatic impacts on the body's ability to control movement.


Other disorders will result in more cognitive effects such as:

  • Memory problems
  • Fatigue and poor concentration
  • Lack of initiative and motivation
  • Irritability, anger and easily stressed
  • Inappropriate behaviour
  • Self-centredness, dependency and lack of insight
  • Slowed responses and poor social skills
  • Poor problem-solving
  • Depression and lack of emotional control
  • Impulsive behaviour.


Physical effects can vary widely between the disorders, with some of the more common ones including:

  • Movement disorders and paralysis
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Dizziness and balance problems
  • Epilepsy and seizures
  • Headaches
  • Eyesight and hearing problems
  • Chronic pain.



Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is caused by either a blow to the head or by the head being forced to move rapidly forward or backward. Brain tissue may be torn, stretched, penetrated, bruised or become swollen. Oxygen may not be able to get through to the brain cells and there may be bleeding.


Common causes include motor vehicle accidents, assault, falls, sport accidents, domestic violence, and young babies being shaken. Its effects can be temporary or permanent, and range from mild injury, such as being momentarily stunned while playing football, to a very severe injury that may cause prolonged loss of consciousness.


Apart from the injury to the brain caused by the initial trauma, there are secondary effects that can arise from bleeding, bruising, lack of oxygen and increased pressure within the skull.


Hypoxic injury (lack of oxygen)

Common causes of hypoxia include near drowning and failed suicide attempts such as hanging or carbon monoxide poisoning. This usually leads to a diffuse brain injury, in that large areas of the brain are affected instead of very specific areas.


Brain tumours

Brain tumours can restrict blood supply to other cells or may, through exerting physical pressure upon cells, squash them. Infectious substances may cause cell death through exerting pressure if the brain swells (encephalitis) or the tissue surrounding the brain swells (meningitis), or may kill cells through direct infection. Viral infections may result in diffuse injury which can manifest as fatigue disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome.


Degenerative conditions

There are several mechanisms which may be at work with degenerative conditions, with the more commonly known ones including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.


In multiple sclerosis, nerve cells die when the myelin is removed - myelin is a fatty coating that acts in a similar way to the plastic insulation on electrical wiring. The exact cause is unknown, and there is no cure although treatments exist that can reduce the symptoms.


Parkinson's disease results from the loss of cells in various parts of the brain, including an area that creates dopamine. Loss of dopamine causes neurons to fire without normal control, leaving people less able to direct or control their movement. The exact cause of Parkinson's disease is unknown, and the single biggest risk factor is advancing age. The effects include slowness of movement, rigidity, tremors and balance problems.


Alzheimer's disease accounts for roughly two in three cases of dementia. The causes are poorly understood, but genes play a major role, and there is no cure.  Plaques and tangles in the brain usually develop later in life and lead to problems with short-term memory, disorientation, mood swings and behavioural issues. The average life expectancy is three to nine years after diagnosis.


Stroke & other vascular diseases

A stroke occurs when blood supply within the brain is disrupted. Arteries with the brain are either blocked, broken or begin bleeding which prevents oxygen and nutrients getting to the brain cells. When this lack of blood supply occurs to the heart it is called a heart attack - in the brain it is called a stroke. The effects vary widely as different parts of the brain are responsible for thought processes, comprehension, movement and our senses. The extent of blood shortage also determines the effect of the stroke.



Infections can injure the brain and even lead to death very quickly, so urgent medical attention is always critical.


Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, which leads to high fever, headaches, sensitivity to light, confusion, and occasionally seizures. Vaccination of young children is strongly recommended as a preventative measure. The most common causes of meningitis are viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa.


Encephalitis is a swelling of the brain caused by viruses or bacteria. This can occur through insect bites, contaminated food, or other existing infections and diseases. Symptoms include an unsteady walk, sleepiness, confusion, fever, headache, light sensitivity, seizures, paralysis and impaired cognition.



Epilepsy involves recurring brief episodes of abnormal electrical activity in the brain leading to uncontrolled convulsions and unconsciousness, or just a momentary loss of awareness. The exact cause is unknown, but the majority of recurring seizures can be prevented by medications. While epilepsy is a brain disorder itself, it can also be caused by other disorders such as a Traumatic brain Injury.





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