The brains of children with severe epilepsy can rewire themselves to compensate for missing regions of the visual cortex following surgery.
This was discovered in a study jointly led by researchers at York University and Carnegie Mellon University.
Currently, surgery for children with severe epilepsy is often a last resort, as the treatment poses a risk to their sight and perception.
“What we’re seeing is remarkable,” said Erez Freud, assistant professor in York University’s Department of Psychology. “The most striking case in our findings was a 14-year-old girl who had severe epilepsy that originated from the left side of the brain. The part of the brain that was removed in the surgery is known to mediate the ability to read. Despite this hemisphere being removed, this patient could read with relatively normal functioning. When we scanned her brain using the fMRI we found that this ‘reading region’ of the brain had re-mapped to the healthy right hemisphere.”
The researchers suggest this provides strong evidence that children’s brains have some degree of plasticity. In adults, if the brain’s vision processing centres are injured or parts are removed through surgery, loss of perception is likely.
This makes them unable to recognise faces or locations, or to read. But in children who are still developing, this part of the brain seems to have flexibility to rewire itself.
“It’s possible that early surgical treatment for children with epilepsy might be what allows this re-mapping,” said Freud. “With early removal of the tissue, the brain may have time to rewire itself to the other healthy hemisphere. It can therefore compensate for the functions that are impaired in the other part of the brain. But more research is needed to better understand exactly what the developmental processes are.”