Acquired brain and spinal cord injury

Acquired injuries to the brain or spinal cord are injuries that occur after birth. They may be traumatic or non-traumatic.

Traumatic injuries are most commonly associated with accidents, assaults and falls that lead to a head or back injury and consequent trauma to the brain or spinal cord. Traumatic injuries can range from minor injuries to severe injuries causing long-term disability.

Non-traumatic brain injuries may be due to an internal source, such as a stroke, a tumour, or degeneration of the vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord; or an external source, such as poisoning or substance abuse.

Who is affected? 

The number of people affected by acquired brain and spinal cord injuries is hard to define. 

UK hospital admissions data shows that around 1.6 million people attend hospital every year with a recent head injury; of these, it is thought that around 45,000 have a brain injury. 

Added to this are the non-traumatic brain injuries - from, for example, stroke (occurs 100,000 times per year in the UK) or brain tumours (11,500 new diagnoses every year in the UK). 

And it is estimated that there are around 1,000 new spinal cord injuries in the UK every year. 

The impact

The number of deaths from brain and spinal cord injuries is going down - thanks to better emergency care and, in the case of stroke, better awareness of symptoms and the availability of new clot-busting drugs. But this means that the population of survivors is growing ever bigger. 

Estimates of the numbers of people in the UK living with long-term problems as a result of acquired brain or spinal cord injuries include: 

  • 1.2 million stroke survivors
  • 420,000 survivors of traumatic brain injury
  • 100,000 people living with brain tumours
  • 40,000 survivors of spinal cord injury

The day-to-day impact of an injury varies enormously from person to person, depending on the nature and severity of the injury, as well as the treatment and rehabilitation undertaken. 

As well as impaired movement, those with brain injuries are likely to have some degree of cognitive impairment, and may have communication difficulties, emotional issues, fatigue, headaches and pain. 

Appropriate rehabilitation plays a vital role in determining the level of recovery. For those with severe injuries, long-term rehabilitation is necessary to maximise - or even maintain - function and independence. Rehabilitation does not repair the injury but rather it aims to help the brain learn alternative ways of working in order to minimise the impact of the injury. 

Almost all survivors of severe brain and spinal cord injuries are left with permanent problems, and very few return to a semblance of normal life. 

How we help

Acquired brain and spinal cord injury is one of Brain Research UK’s three priority research areas. This means that we have identified a large unmet need in this area, coupled with a lack of research investment from other sources.

We want to improve the outlook for those affected by brain and spinal cord injuries by funding research to advance understanding of how to repair the brain and spinal cord. 

We have so far awarded the following five grants for research under this theme: