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Health Talk recommends: Retraining the brain

Tiffany Cowan enjoys playing the violin and continues to lead an active life after her stroke.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 University of Minnesota Medical School magazine, Medical Bulletin. The complete article can be found here.

On a chilly Minnesota evening last December, 16-year-old Tiffany Cowan sat uncomplainingly in Room 242 of the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Memorial Building as two graduate students from the University’s Brain Plasticity Laboratory carefully attached a series of wires to her scalp and right arm.

Cowan, with the consent of her parents, had volunteered to participate in one of the lab’s studies, which was examining the safety of using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) as a treatment for children with congenital stroke. tDCS is a type of painless, noninvasive brain stimulation that delivers a low (battery-powered) and persistent current to specific areas of the brain through small electrodes. Experimental studies have suggested that it may help adult stroke victims regain some function of their limbs. This is among the first to investigate whether it may help children, too.

Tiffany, who suffered a stroke either before or during birth, has limited use of the right side of her body. Although the lithe, blonde teenager leads an active life, including playing the violin (like nearly all violinists, she bows with her right hand and does the more demanding finger work with her left), she’s eager to participate in research that might enable her to have more muscle control of her stroke-damaged hand.

Lead researcher Bernadette Gillick, P.T., Ph.D., hovered maternally around Tiffany as the graduate students prepared the young woman for the tDCS stimulation. Gillick spoke to Tiffany constantly, putting her at ease as she explained everything the graduate students were doing.

Understanding how the brain reorganizes itself after a stroke or other brain injury is the overall mission of the Brain Plasticity Laboratory. Located in the Children’s Rehabilitation Center on the University’s East Bank campus, the decade-old lab is engaged in a variety of fascinating — and often unique — research using various brain stimulation, rehabilitation, and imaging techniques. Findings from this research are not only enabling scientists to gain deeper insight into how the injured brain restructures itself, but they are also pointing to promising new therapies that may help children and adults recover lost function after such an injury.

“There are only a couple of other labs that I’m aware of around the country that are doing some of the things that we’re doing here,” says James Carey, P.T., Ph.D., who codirects the lab with Gillick and Teresa Kimberley, P.T., Ph.D. In fact, he adds, the Brain Plasticity Laboratory may be the only one using a special dual type of brain-priming technique in its studies.

The term plasticity (which comes from the Greek word plaistikos, meaning “to form”) refers to the brain’s ability to change its structure and function as a result of new learning and experiences. Until the 1960s, scientists believed that after childhood the brain became a static organ, unable to create new pathways among its 100 billion cells, or neurons. But thanks in large part to advances in brain imaging technology, it’s now known that the brain is constantly reorganizing those pathways. In fact, the adult human brain is even capable of creating new neurons, a process called neurogenesis.

“The big question is, can we translate the results that we observed here in our research laboratory to the clinical setting,” says Gillick. “Because that’s ultimately where this is supposed to go. The goal is to improve the lives of those who live with the consequences of stroke.”

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