People who use their toes like they use their hands undergo mapping changes inside the brain. The Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of London found that the brain maps of such people form hand-like ‘maps’.
Professional foot painters took part in the study. The journal Cell reports showcase the findings from the study. This study highlights the adaptation capabilities of the human body. The experiences of the human body alter these adaptations.
Each limb and in turn each finger links to a specific part of the brain. For the toes, there was no such differentiation until now.
Daan Wesselink from the University of Oxford led the research. He worked in collaboration with Dr. Harriet Dempsey-Jones. Dr. Harriet works with the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Having dedicated sections of the brain for toes was only evident in monkeys before now. This was because of their ability to climb.
During the research, researchers discovered a new phenomenon. The brains of people who used toes for painting registered each toe in the same way as a finger.
Two of the three foot-painters in the UK were part of the study. The painters use their toes for other tasks as well like typing and for dressing up.
Both the participants did not use regular footwear. Their toes registered different sensations depending on the surfaces that they came in contact with. The team suggested that this might have triggered the brain development of these organized toe maps.
For the study, ‘normal people’ who use two hands formed the control group. While the two painters constituted the test group. The team tested the sensory perception and motor control of their toes.
Analyzing the brain imagery
The participants then underwent ultra-high-resolution Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scanning. The study focused on the somatosensory cortex.
The MRI helped in analyzing the body map inside the brain. Researchers tapped the toes of the participants to find activity in the foot area of the body map.
In the foot painters, brain’s foot area reacted to the stimulus. Brain maps comprising of individual toes maps for the dexterous foot were seen. The stabilizing foot had a less pronounced pattern than the dexterous one.
The control group exhibited no such maps. The patterns represented in the brain for the artists were in a ‘hand-like’ way, but not for the control group.
This is in line with previous studies about people with disabilities. People with disabilities develop body maps for the organs used instead of the disabled organ.
The innate plasticity of the human brain
The motor task analysis also provided a much-needed insight. Foot painters’ toe wiggling abilities weren’t any better than the control group. They just possessed heightened sensory perception for their toes.
The research findings reveal that all people may have an innate capability of forming these ordered maps of each toe. This behavior is standard in monkeys. The reason people do not develop this is because of the lack of necessary experience.
The study is the first of its kind. It highlights the brain’s malleability according to the changes in external sensory information. The brain not only develops a distinct body map but also heightens the other senses if need be. Various sensory experiences tailor the brain’s reaction.
Researchers term the findings as highly valuable. The Plasticity Lab at UCL is particularly excited about the brain’s innate plasticity. The plasticity would help in researching limb transplant and rejection.
While this might be one way of analyzing the findings, it has countless applications. The study will help in forming better rehabilitation exercises for patients. Patients can benefit from the plasticity and malleability of the brain. This would allow them to recover more efficiently.