Arm-amputation involves two powerful drivers for brain plasticity—sensory deprivation and altered use. However, research has largely focused on sensory deprivation and maladaptive change. Here we show that adaptive patterns of limb usage after amputation drive cortical plasticity. We report that individuals with congenital or acquired limb-absence vary in whether they preferentially use their intact hand or residual arm in daily activities. Using fMRI, we show that the deprived sensorimotor cortex is employed by whichever limb individuals are over-using. Individuals from either group that rely more on their intact hands (and report less frequent residual arm usage) showed increased intact hand representation in the deprived cortex, and increased white matter fractional anisotropy underlying the deprived cortex, irrespective of the age at which deprivation occurred. Our results demonstrate how experience-driven plasticity in the human brain can transcend boundaries that have been thought to limit reorganisation after sensory deprivation in adults.
The loss of a limb will have a profound impact on an individual’s daily life. Nevertheless, individuals can employ a variety of behavioural strategies to adapt to the loss of, say, a hand. Some become skilled at using the residual part of their arm, while others prefer to rely on their other hand. Their brain, too, will undergo major changes. Many studies have shown that the region of the brain that controlled a given limb can be “taken over” by another part of the body if that limb is lost. This process has been previously considered to be harmful, as it has been linked to experiences of pain arising from the missing limb.
Now, Makin et al. have explored the links between changes in the behaviour of individuals missing a hand and changes in their brains. People who had been born without a hand or who had lost a hand in later life were asked to wear a device that recorded their movements as they went about their daily lives. The data revealed that people who had been born without a hand made relatively more use of their residual limb, while those who had lost their hand made relatively more use of their remaining hand.
Moreover, these differences were reflected in patterns of brain activity. In the subjects born without a hand (who were making relatively extensive use of their residual limb), the area of the brain that would otherwise control the ‘missing’ hand was activated when the subjects moved their residual limb. And in the subjects who had lost their hand, this brain region was activated when they moved their remaining hand. However, in individual subjects, the size of the effect depended on the usage preferences of the subject: for example, the minority of people who were born without a hand but nevertheless make extensive use of their intact hand showed a pattern of activation that resembled the average pattern seen in those who had lost a hand in later life.
By providing new insights into the plasticity of brain and behaviour following the loss of a hand, the work of Makin et al. may aid the development of rehabilitation techniques to help patients to optimise the use of both their residual and their intact limbs.