New techniques give hope to brain damaged victims

Scientists at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Atlanta have been demonstrating just how clever new techniques have become and what they are able to achieve.

A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School have found that touch can activate the visual area of the brain when a person cannot see.

They say visual areas in the brain begin responding to touch even when a person has been unable to see for a short time which demonstrates that the brain starts to "see" the world through the fingers instead of the eyes.

They discovered this by blindfolding people with normal vision for five days to simulate total blindness, then by using brain scans they were able to see that the areas of the brain devoted to the eyes started responding to touch.

The scientists say the experiment demonstrated just how quickly the brain adapts and they believe that the connections between touch and sight are always there, waiting to be utilised when an injury occurs.

Another team of neuroscientists from Presbyterian/Weill Cornell University Hospital in New York, the JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, found by using pulses of electric current, that they were able to restore some speech and movement to a brain-damaged man.

The 38 year-old man was the victim of an assault and had barely been conscious for a period of six years.

The process enabled him to gradually regain the use of his left arm and he was able to utter coherent words for the first time since the injury.

Prior to the treatment he was mute and unable to move and only able to respond to questions by moving his thumb or nodding.

In a process called deep brain stimulation the neuroscientists implanted two wire electrodes deep into the man's brain, a treatment often used to treat sufferers of Parkinson's disease.

Although the treatment may offer hope to many such patients it does present the ethical dilemma of operating on patients who are unable to give their consent.

The team say the treatment would be of most benefit to patients who have already shown some responsiveness.

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