Georgetown University Medical Center recently performed a study that showed just how “plastic” or adaptable infants’ brains are. They studied children who had a stroke in the left side of their brain just days after birth and found that the right side was able to take over language skills – usually left-brain tasks. Language processing is normally divided up in a rather nuanced manner: the left hemisphere processes sentences and helps us understand words, whereas the right hemisphere tackles the emotions of words – happy, sad, mad.
The babies observed in the study were normal during pregnancy, however, all had a “significant” stroke shortly after birth – the type that would undoubtedly impair an adult. The strokes were perinatal arterial ischemic strokes, an outcome from a blood clot cutting off blood flow to the brain. Researchers followed these babies over many years – the participants were given tests between the ages of 9 and 26 to assess their language skills while also undergoing MRI scans to show which parts of their brain were being utilized to understand sentences. These results were compared to healthy siblings that were of a similar age.
Both siblings completed their language tests without much difficulty, however the differences lay in which part of the brain was being used during the tests. The individuals who had had strokes as babies used the right side of their brain to process sentences, whereas their healthy siblings used their left side. “Only one of the 15 participants, who had the smallest stroke, did not show clear right hemisphere dominant activation.” Additionally, many of the stroke participants were now successful, high-functioning adults.
“Our most important conclusion is that plasticity in the brain, specifically the ability to reorganize language to the opposite side of the brain, is definitely possible early in life,” according to Elissa Newport, Ph.D., director of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery at Georgetown Medical Center. This study gives insight into treatment and recovery, as well as hope, for people who experience similar strokes later in life.
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