Brain researchers keep coming up with astounding findings of how adaptable the human brain can be. In the past, it was thought that the brain stopped changing after a certain age. Once you were “wired” a certain way, you were stuck.
That has been overturned with the discovery of neuroplasticity. Now the question is just how plastic can the brain be and under what circumstances? A story from Smithsonian magazine discusses this in the context of people who can use their feet like most people use their hands. The implications could lead to new treatments for cerebral palsy.
In a report in the journal Cell Reports, researchers looked at the brains of two people who are professional foot painters. They were born without arms and learned from birth how to do everything with their feet.
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In most people, the brain regions that correspond to the feet are far simpler than the ones for the hands. But when the study participants were put into fMRI machines and had their feet stimulated, the areas were far more complex. Scientists said that they’ve only seen such complexity in other primates. This kind of “mental map” doesn’t exist in most adult humans.
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The scientists want to learn how they can replicate this kind of brain flexibility in other humans. If they can do that, people with cerebral palsy or stroke might be able to regain more motor function over their limbs. They intend to start looking at children’s brains, which is when the brain is the most malleable.