This is a critical trait of a normally healthy brain. It is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself to accommodate new demands, or to compensate for injuries. The brains of children are highly adaptable. So, for example, a child beset by severe epilepsy may undergo a hemispherectomy - a surgery to remove one hemisphere of the brain - and recover quite nicely, as the remaining hemisphere rewires itself and learns the tasks lost through surgery.
The brains of adults are less pliable. As we age, neural networks become more firmly established and less capable of adapting to overcome traumas. This is what makes recovery from stroke difficult, and why we often see only partial results. But, researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore are challenging this traditional wisdom.
Using a unique treadmill, the scientists are retraining stroke victims to walk without a limp. The process relies on teaching the muscles to respond without a second thought - literally. The researchers have discovered that a network of underlying automatic nerve systems controls the legs. The challenge is to train these nerves at a subconscious level.
To do so, the scientists developed a "split-treadmill." This treadmill has two belts, one on each side, which can be adjusted to differing speeds and directions. So, the right side may be set to move four times faster than the left; or, the left side may move forward and the right side backward. Yes, it sounds like a cruel punishment for someone already struggling to overcome a stroke, but the results are impressive.
After 15 minutes on the treadmill, the patients walk without a limp - for about 15 minutes. It's really quite remarkable, as these are patients with longstanding debilities. The key is now to extend the positive benefits of the therapy for longer intervals, and Kennedy Krieger will begin a new round of studies in the fall.
Though the fancy treadmills are not yet commercially available, don't despair. Mr. W. Coyote, an alternative treatment specialist, claims the Turbo-Power 2000 Remote Controlled Treadmill from the Acme Corporation is the perfect substitute. Hmm...To read more about the study, see this from CNN. To learn more about the institute, see this from Kennedy Krieger. Photo is courtesy of Emiliano Spada.