Are Those Your Lips or Feet? How Your Brain Rewires Itself After Amputation

From the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, your brain contains a map to your entire body. But what happens to that map if you lose a limb?

Every sound heard or touch felt is a result of neurons in a specific part of the brain firing. The human brain is organized “topographically” so it can keep track of where things are happening, so one can tell the difference between a touch on the arm or the face. By observing people’s brains in different imaging machines, neuroscientists have largely mapped out touch sensations in the brain. They found touch signals from different parts of the body get sent to different areas of the brain and from that, they have made somatotopic maps.

Researchers hypothesize that when a limb is lost, new connections may sprout into underused brain areas, or perhaps weaker connections that were already there can now take over. When looking at nonhuman primates with amputated limbs, researchers have seen touches to the lips light up regions of the brain corresponding to where the limb was — which makes sense if they’re using their mouths to do tasks they would’ve done with their hands before. There are similar observations in adult humans too, though some argue it might depend on what the patient uses to compensate for the lost limbs. So, does this mean humans can regrow and rewire massive parts of our brain after amputation?

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