Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Concussion and the New Science of Brain Plasticity with Clark Elliott

Attendees at Saturday afternoon’s event Concussion and the New Science of Brain Plasticity with Clark Elliott were studious and engaged, despite the warm spring day and the sunshine streaming through the big skylights at the Christ Church Cathedral hall.  It was a diverse crowd people from all walks of life, many of whom had lives affected by brain injury.  Elliott’s book, a case study of his recovery from concussion using unconventional – yet scientifically supported – therapy, could pave the way for research developing treatments to improve the lives of many.  According to Elliott, over 6 million Americans have lasting injury from concussions, and “it’s worse in Canada, because of hockey.” 


Although Elliott is an unassuming man, his intelligence became clear very quickly while he spoke about the injury he sustained from a minor car accident, the subsequent ongoing symptoms, and his eventual recovery.  A computer scientist, professor and expert in the field of Artificial Intelligence with additional degrees in music, Elliot demonstrated a scientific approach to understanding the root cause of the symptoms and the rationale for the effectiveness of the neuro-optometric rehabilitation and cognitive restructuring, which he says led to a complete reclamation of the abilities and personality he had before the accident.  He presented his experience with the aid of a slide show, helping the attendees follow along with the complex ideas.  His story was moving as he described the loss and recovery of his ability to be himself after injury.


This was not light material, but the audience had their attention held by the promise inherent in Elliott’s remarkable recovery.  He read some of the responses to the book he has received from fellow brain injury sufferers, and it is clear that in sharing his experience he has opened a way for many back to a better quality of life.  Like Elliott, many of these people have been told, “No one ever improves.”  The loss of ability, frightening and painful symptoms, and incursions into daily life by the injury such as balance problems and fatigue are thought to be a life sentence. 


Elliott writes to present a possible alternative.  Perhaps due to his AI expertise, he was able to understand and document the input and processing errors that were happening in his brain.  When, after eight years of lasting effects, he met the therapists whose work would ultimately turn his life around, he was ready.  The audience reacted with amazement as Elliott explained the therapies that were used in concert to help him recover; they were little more than specialized prescription glasses and paper-and-pencil tests!  However, the tests helped him carve new pathways for cognitive processing in his brain – capitalizing on the principles of neuroplasticity to change the way the brain works.  Elliott described how his spacial processing was improved by adjusting for injury in the visual-spacial processing centers with corrective eyewear; this ability is required for bringing meaning to symbolic thought and sensory interpretation.  In short, these simple therapies rewired his brain to get around the injury and repair his cognitive ability and processing.  Throughout the talk, the audience was filled with nodding heads and a palpable sense of hope.  It is clear what a difference this therapy could mean.


Elliot’s story, though, will be a beacon of hope to many suffering from brain injury.  Although he was humble and quick to point out where his knowledge falls short - he provided resources, gave credit to the doctors, and let attendees know when he was theorizing and when his statements were backed up by studies, stressing the importance of further study - his case study will change lives.