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Brain Switches To Backups Right After Injury

January 18, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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If any part of the brain loses functionality, the brain immediately deploys a backup system to take over its duties. If the original area then regains functionality, the brain keeps the backup operational for a while, just to make sure everything is back to normal.

Pretty cool, huh?

Carnegie Mellon University‘s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging used functional MRI to discover that instant activation of work-arounds after an injury. “The human brain has a remarkable ability to adapt to various types of trauma, such as traumatic brain injury and stroke, making it possible for people to continue functioning after key brain areas have been damaged,” said Marcel Just, PhD, the D. O. Hebb Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon and director of the brain imaging center.

Dr. Just said the research even indicated that people could train their brains for easier recovery in case of an injury. Betraying a shaky grasp of baseball (he’s originally from Montreal, so perhaps he grew up playing hockey), he explained:

The secret is to develop alternative thinking styles, the way a switch-hitter develops alternative batting styles. Then, if a muscle in one arm is injured, they can use the batting style that relies more on the uninjured arm.

It’s not compensating for injuries that leads baseball switch-hitters to bat as a right-hander against left-handed pitchers and vice versa against righties. They’re just trying to do a better job of hitting breaking pitches. But we Dr. Just’s point. He was quoted in a Carnegie Mellon news release.

Carnegie Mellon researchers learned of the brain’s ability to activate backup circuits by scanning the brains of 16 healthy adults using fMRI. The researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to temporarily incapacitate the Wernicke area, the key area of the brain involved in language comprehension. Other brain areas immediately became activated and coordinated, so quickly that the subjects’ thought processes continued with no decrease in comprehension performance.

Robert Mason, PhD, a senior research psychologist at Carnegie Mellon, is lead author of a paper about the study published online Monday in Cerebral Cortex. He said that when the magnetic stimulation was removed and the Wernicke area gradually returned to its normal levels of activity, the backup system remained operational for a while.

“This means,” he said, “that for some period of time, there were two cortical teams operating simultaneously, explaining why performance is sometimes improved by TMS.”

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Related seminar: UCSF Neuro and Musculoskeletal Imaging

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