Child’s brain rewires itself after successful hand transplant

Child’s brain rewires itself after successful hand transplant

Scientists used to think the brain could not regenerate itself. This century’s ground-breaking discovery of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to experience—is transforming the neuroscience landscape.

Adding fresh evidence, a study published this week in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology reports a brain’s incredible rewiring after the world’s first successful child hand transplant.

Zion Harvey, now 10 years old, had his hands amputated after a serious infection in infancy. Consistent with studies of amputation, magnetic brain imaging showed his brain subsequently reorganised itself, a process known as ‘massive cortical reorganization’—touching his lips activated the brain region normally devoted to receiving sensory signals from the hands.

William Gaetz, PhD, lead author from the Biomagnetic Imaging Laboratory at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explained in a press release, “The brain area representing sensations from the lips shifts as much as two centimetres to the area formerly representing the hands.”

Following a 10-hour hand transplant, Zion’s rehabilitation included painstaking hand exercises several times daily to improve their function. Over the following year, the researchers took four rounds of brain imaging in Zion and five age-matched controls. On the third visit, touching his lips returned signals to the brain’s normal lip sensory region, and fingertip stimulation started evoking signals in the hand sensory region. Effectively, his brain had rehabilitated itself.

“This is a tremendous milestone not only for our team and our research, but for Zion himself,” said Gaetz.

Zion is now writing, eating, toileting and dressing himself independently, far more easily than before the transplant, dramatically improving his quality of life.

This case study presents new evidence of the brain’s ability to adapt to new input. Gaetz said, “These results have raised many new questions and generated excitement about brain plasticity, particularly in children.” What signals would evoke the brain’s hand sensory region in someone born with no hands? Is there an optimal age to perform a hand transplant? Would the same brain normalisation happen in adults?

These are just some of many questions to be answered moving forward in neuroscience’s new frontier.

Published in Science Nutshell.

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