Human brain proves clever at learning to handle disability

The findings could lead to new ways to treat people who have suffered a brain injury.

New research by Oxford scientists has found evidence that the brain could be more adaptable than previously thought. And it is believed the results could make way for new ways of treating people with a brain injury, people who have lost limbs or those have had a stroke. Study leader Dr Tamar Makin explained: "This study tells us a lot about how the brain adapts to compensate for a disability. "Whichever body part is being used to compensate for a hand loss takes over the brain territory of the missing hand." The study was carried out by scientists based at the John Radcliffe Hospital on behalf of Oxford University and Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust (OUHT). Over a five year period they analysed the different ways in which patients perform tasks such as opening bottles, tying shoelaces and using phones. In particular, the researchers compared those who were born without a hand and those who lost one later in life. Dr Makin said one of the key findings was that the brain did not distinguish whether or not a body was born with a hand, adding: "The brain is not fussy about whether there is a hand at the end of the arm, a prosthetic or a 'stump', so long as it is used in a similar way." The research also suggested that the age a person lost a hand was not believed to affect how well the brain adapted to the change. The researchers will publish their findings today (7 January) on the Wellcome Trust's website. Co-author Dr David Henderson-Slater, of the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Headington, said: "We have always known that some people adapt to the loss of a limb very soon, and make changes in the way they use other parts of their body to compensate. Kirsty Mason, pictured above lost her lower right arm in an accident six years ago.  The 23-year-old who took part in the study has since learned to use what remains of her lower arm to do a number of things. She can tie her hair in a ponytail, use her mobile phone and do up zips and buttons on a coat.
Share page
Print page
Follow us