Researchers looked at a group of children who had suffered a traumatic brain injury three years earlier, most often in car crashes.
Those with lingering damage in the brain's frontal lobes had lower-quality social lives, according to the Brigham Young University (BYU) study in the April 10 issue of the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation. The study did not determine a cause-and-effect relationship, only an association.
"The thing that's hardest about brain injury is that someone can have significant difficulties but they still look OK," neuropsychologist and study author Shawn Gale said in a university news release.
"But they have a harder time remembering things and focusing on things as well, and that affects the way they interact with other people. Since they look fine, people don't cut them as much slack as they ought to," Gale explained.
The researchers found that the problem may be something called cognitive proficiency, a combination of short-term memory and brain-processing speed.
"In social interactions we need to process the content of what a person is saying in addition to simultaneously processing nonverbal cues," study co-author Ashley Levan, a doctoral student at BYU, said in the news release. "We then have to hold that information in our working memory to be able to respond appropriately. If you disrupt working memory or processing speed, it can result in difficulty with social interactions."
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder also affects the frontal lobes, and previous research has shown that therapy can improve working memory in children with ADHD.
"This is a preliminary study, but we want to go into more of the details about why working memory and processing speed are associated with social functioning and how specific brain structures might be related to improve outcome," Gale said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about traumatic brain injury.