Frontal lobe paradox: where people have brain damage but don’t know it

Frontal lobe paradox: where people have brain damage but don’t know it

Humans have big brains and our frontal lobes, just behind the forehead, are particularly huge. Injuries to this part of the brain often happen after blows to the head or a stroke. Paradoxically, some people with frontal lobe injuries can seem unaffected – until they’ve been carefully evaluated.

The frontal lobes are sometimes described as the executives of the brain, or conductors of the orchestra. Among other things, they control and organise our thinking and decision-making processes. You rely on your frontal lobes when you do things like make plans, switch from one activity to another, or resist temptation.

Some people with frontal lobe injuries seem completely normal in short one-to-one conversations, but they actually have great difficulty with everyday tasks, such as cooking, organising their paperwork or remembering to take medication. This is called the frontal lobe paradox because, even though these people seem unimpaired when assessed, they have significant difficulties in everyday life.

Without specialist expertise in acquired brain injuries, it can be almost impossible to spot frontal lobe paradox because, in many cases, people will still be able to speak normally and seem remarkably unimpaired. They may be unaware of their difficulties and deny that they need any help or support.

Insight issues

People affected by the condition are not lying when they say they don’t need help or support. Instead, they may lack knowledge of their own condition because areas of the frontal lobes that are responsible for self-monitoring and developing insight have been affected by their brain damage.

A second reason for the frontal lobe paradox is that the skills needed for an assessment interview are different from those needed in everyday life. The structure and routine of an environment, such as a rehabilitation ward, can, in effect, play the role of someone’s frontal lobes. This can mask the difficulties people experience in less structured, open-ended environments. For this reason, a person’s level of ability needs to be assessed in a situation that resembles everyday life. A seemingly simple task, such as going shopping, can reveal difficulties in people who appear unimpaired on standard tests of memory and attention, and have normal intelligence.

People with frontal lobe paradox may need help with things like cooking. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com

Lack of specialist training

Neuroscientists and doctors have known about the frontal lobe paradox for at least 50 years, but it is not always understood by non-specialists. This situation can lead to people not receiving help they desperately need.

For example, in England and Wales, social workers and care managers are usually responsible for deciding whether a person has the capacity (under the Mental Capacity Act 2005) to decline support or care. These are hardworking professionals who are motivated to act in the best interests of those under their care, but many receive little or no specialist training in brain injury.

These professionals tend to base their decision about a person’s mental capacity on a short face-to-face interview. This is exactly the situation that can lead to people with frontal lobe damage being denied the care that they need.

The assessment provides the support needed for a person to sound competent and able, but only for the duration of the assessment. In one example, a woman persuaded a series of professionals that she could safely live alone after a significant brain injury. In reality, she could not make meals for herself or remember to take her lifesaving medication. Sadly, she died at home shortly afterwards.

Support needed

We don’t know exactly how common the condition is, but the frontal lobe paradox is probably found in a much higher number of people than you might first imagine. As well as those who have suffered blows to the head and strokes, it can affect people with certain infections, some forms of dementia and even poorly controlled diabetes.

It is vital that social workers and care managers are trained on brain injury to protect the interests of people with frontal lobe injuries. People with these injuries are in particular need of support, but they are often the least likely to receive it.

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