April 27, 2017

Brain May Be Organized by Functions, Not Body Parts

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New research suggests the human mind may be organized by specific functions, which challenges the long-held scientific belief that different parts of the brain control different parts of the body. While the study authors acknowledge that more research is needed to confirm whether brain organization is based on body parts or specific functions, they say their findings highlight the brain’s flexibility and adaptability—traits that could be used to help people with missing limbs gain control of prostheses. The findings were published April 20 in the journal Current Biology.

Tamar Makin, PhD, a neuroscientist with the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, England, and her colleagues wondered what happens in the brains of people who were born with congenital limb differences, so they compared the brain activity of 17 people who were born without one hand and 24 people with two hands. Participants were video-recorded as they performed five routine daily activities, such as handling money or wrapping a gift. The researchers also scanned the volunteers’ brains as they moved certain body parts to see which brain areas lit up with activity. They found that the region normally associated with hand movements compensates by becoming active when other body parts, such as an arm, foot, or mouth, are moving.

“We found that the traditional hand area gets used up by a multitude of body parts in congenital one-handers,” Makin said. “Interestingly, these body parts that get to benefit from increased representation in the freed-up brain territory are those used by the one-handers in daily life to substitute for their missing-hand function—say when having to open a bottle of water.”

“If we, as neuroscientists, could harness this process, we could provide a really powerful tool to better healthcare and society,” Makin said. “By learning how this occurs spontaneously in one-handers, we can get a handle on what we might be able to achieve.”

Editor’s note: This story was adapted from materials provided by Cell Press.

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