YOU can’t teach an old brain new tricks – or so we thought.
New research by Oxford scientists has found evidence that the organ could be even more adaptable than previously thought.
And it is believed the findings could lead to new ways to treat people who have lost limbs, had a stroke or suffered a brain injury.
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 period of five years they watched the different ways about 50 patients carry out tasks such as opening bottles of water, tying their shoelaces and using mobile 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.
He said: “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.”
And, she said, the age a person lost a hand was not believed to affect how well the brain adapted to the change.
Headington resident Clay Wesenberg, originally from Canada, was born without a hand and received some specially-made prosthetics from experts in OUHT.
Like others who took part in the study, the 38-year-old’s brain responses to certain actions were measured in an MRI machine.
He said: “You learn strategies for how to do things your own way.
“If you asked me to do something in the way you’re doing it I might find it difficult.
“But although I will do it differently, the outcome will be the same.”
Another patient, Kirsty Mason, from Bracknell, lost her lower right arm in an accident six years ago.
The 23-year-old has since learned to use what remains of her lower arm to do a number of things, including helping to tie her hair in a ponytail, use her mobile phone and do up zips and buttons on a coat.
The researchers will publish their findings today 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.
“This study helps us to understand the basis for this and we may be able to incorporate this knowledge into the therapy we offer to new amputees.”
He added: “This could also help with the rehabilitation of people who have suffered from strokes and brain injuries.”