One of the great ironies of science is how little we understand our own brains. There has been amazing progress in neuroscience in the last century, true, but the workings of big melon in charge remain rather mysterious. One such mystery is if that big melon is, in fact, in charge at all, whether it’s the less materialistic question of our brains as generators of consciousness or simply amplifiers, or simply what level of executive function our brains play as opposed to, say, our gut. A fascinating aspect of the human brain is the concept of neuroplasticity: our brains can re-route neurons and form new connections in response to repeated stimuli or trauma. The different parts of the human brain are responsible for different tasks, we have a basic top-level split in our brains into right and left hemispheres. Our right hemisphere, we’ve learned, is responsible for the left side of our motor functions and our left eye, as well as the creative or abstract side of our thinking, while our left hemisphere is responsible for the right side of our motor functions and our logical, analytical mode of thinking. Then there are further divisions, different regions of the brain with different jobs, all nice and compartmentalized and logically structured.
But what happens when part of the brain is broken or even removed? There’s countless tragic stories of people who have suffered brain damage being reduced in cognitive capability or reduced to a vegetative state. Less well known is the stories of of people who have had traumatic brain injury and whose brains have compensated through neuroplasticity and shifted the jobs of the damaged parts of the brain to other regions. Such is the case of the boy referred to as U.D.
According to a case study published in the journal Cell Reports, U.D began suffering from seizures when he was four years old. The seizures became increasingly worse. Medication and other various treatments failed to help him and his parents were forced to resort to drastic measures. Three years ago, U.D. underwent a procedure known as a lobectomy and had a third of the right hemisphere of his brain removed, the region responsible for processing the left side of his vision. His seizures are gone. U.D. now has a blind spot on his left side, due to the whole brain-removal thing, but, amazingly, nothing else seems to have been affected.
Three years after his procedure, U.D. shows normal cognitive function, and he retains his “above average” reading level. Thanks to neuroplasticity, the left hemisphere of his brain picked up the slack and has taken on the job of the removed portion of his brain. Even stranger, the extra work done by his left hemisphere isn’t interfering with its normal workload.
The left/right hemisphere split applies to how we process different visual information. Our left-brain vision center takes care of processing words and other data-like information, while our right-brain vision center processes how we read faces and emotional information. Doctors were worried that U.D.’s brain would have to choose between processing words or processing faces, due to one lobe doing twice the work, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The left lobe of his brain is handling twice the work without any loss of efficiency, and doctors don’t quite know why.
According to senior author Marlene Behrmann, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, when asked how this works:
“I wish I could answer at the cellular level. [Neurons] can interact with neighboring neurons in new ways, [they] can sprout new connections”
Doctors are unsure of whether U.D.’s young age is responsible for this extreme example of neuroplasticity, but they suspect that it has something to do with it. It’s well established that young brains are more pliable than older ones and can form new connections faster and easier. Even still, it’s a testament to how powerful the human brain is, and how much we have yet to learn.