Inflammation, or swelling, of the brain can be caused by illness or injury. The effects may be mild and temporary or severe and permanent. Damage to the front lobes of the brain can be especially serious since this part of your brain manages everything from memory to learning to judgment and planning. Treatment may be a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics, or in severe cases, surgery.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
The left and right frontal lobes, located at the front of your brain, are the command center for many of your higher functions, such as:
- emotional processing
The frontal lobes also manage your ability to initiate or inhibit speech and behavior, as well as pick up on social cues and interpret facial expressions. If damaged by swelling due to disease or injury, the frontal lobes can cease to function properly and negatively affect behavior, speech and personality permanently.
Encephalitis is the medical term for inflammation of the brain, though it is more often used to describe brain swelling due to viral infections than to bacterial infections. Encephalitis can be mild, moderate or fatal and is caused by a variety of viruses, but mainly Herpes Simplex and Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis). Lyme disease, West Nile virus and rabies can also cause the brain to swell.
A brain abscess can also cause inflammation. A mass occurs when the blood-brain barrier is broken by bacteria or fungi and the brain attempts to protect uninfected areas by sectioning off the pathogens and dead or dying cells. This mass then causes the adjoining brain areas to swell and increases pressure inside the cranium.
Traumatic brain injuries are more likely to affect the frontal lobe than any other part of the brain. This is partly because of the location of the frontal lobe and partly because the majority of injuries to the brain are due to forward-motion activities such as car crashes, motorcycle accidents, skiing accidents and the like. When the skull hits something that does not give way (like a tree), the brain’s forward movement propels it against the inside of the skull. This impact causes the brain to swell in response to the injury, rushing blood to the damaged area. This inflammation can cut off the blood supply to irreplaceable neurons if the pressure is not relieved immediately.
Since the frontal lobes of the brain are responsible for a wide variety of physiological and psychological functions, damage to this area can have profound and diverse effects. Swelling within this region can damage memory, which in turn affects learning. It can also change personality, sometimes causing an absence of emotions (flat affect) or produce aggression, reckless behavior or addictions. Sexual behavior may become compulsive or non-existent. If inflammation of the frontal lobe is not eradicated, coma and then death will occur. A recent article in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" suggests that ongoing inflammation of the brain causes the death of neurons which can eventually lead to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Though swelling due to a brain abscess can sometimes be treated with antibiotics, prolonged or traumatic inflammation of the brain must be addressed with emergency surgery. Holes are drilled into the skull to relieve the pressure and allow the brain to expand beyond its skull barrier. This may have been the reason behind the ancient practice of trepanation, in which a hole was drilled into the skull for medical or mystical purposes. In this 7,000-year-old practice the skin grew over the hole, but in modern-day surgery, the bone is replaced if possible to protect the brain from infection.
- Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Steve and Shanon Lawson