Stelios M. Smirnakis, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute physician-postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, and colleagues including Nikos K. Logothetis of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor cortical activity for seven and one-half months after injury to the retina of adult monkeys. They found limited reorganization in the primary visual cortex.
Their results contradict previous thinking. In a "News and Views" commentary published in the same issue of Nature, Martin I. Sereno, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, says the latest data indicate that adult brains may be less plastic than scientists had hoped.
In children, the brain's ability to compensate for injuries is well known. Children with severe epilepsy who lose an entire hemisphere during surgery can regain motor control on the affected side of their body and go on to develop normal language skills. But in adults, the case for brain plasticity has been less clear.
A series of studies in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to show that, in adult animals, neurons "filled in" blank spots in the motor and visual cortex after these areas fell silent from lack of sensory input due to injury. This led to speculation that adult brains could compensate for permanent damage to the eyes, ears, skin, or even to itself. In the case of damage to the retina, Smirnakis said, "the predominantbut by no means universalview was that significant reorganization occurred as early as it d
Contact: Jennifer Donovan
Howard Hughes Medical Institute