New research shows that children’s brains can “re-map” following surgery

8th January 2020

Groundbreaking research has found that the brains of children with severe epilepsy can remap themselves to regain functionality following surgery. This has been seen in a number of cases where the brain has changed to compensate for missing regions that have been surgically removed, particularly in the visual cortex. 

A joint study between York University and Carnegie Mellon University made this incredible discovery by looking at a number of cases where this phenomenon has occurred. At present, surgery in children is only considered when other treatment options have been exhausted due to the complexities of operating on an adolescent brain and the injury that can occur as a result. However, this discovery may pave the way to making surgery a more viable option for children with severe, life-limiting epilepsy. 

The study proposes that the brains of children have been observed to have more ‘plasticity’, meaning that as they are still growing, it’s more likely that they are able to heal themselves in a different way to that of an adult. In adults with fully developed brains it has been noted that damage to the vision processing centres are more likely to result in loss of perception. This can make them unable to recognise faces, places or even lose the ability to read. It’s this part of the brain that seems to have the flexibility to adapt, but only in children. 

Erez Freud, assistant professor in York University’s Department of Psychology, commented: “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 (functional magnetic resonance imaging) we found that this ‘reading region’ of the brain had re-mapped to the healthy right hemisphere.”

Freud continued: “It’s possible that early surgical treatment for children with epilepsy might be what allows this re-mapping,” “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.”

This news could potentially change the way we consider surgical options for children. Currently, it’s more likely that they would be more likely to wait until adulthood. But with this research, it demonstrates that it may be more prudent to perform surgery at an early age in order to have the optimal chance of full recovery with perception intact. 

For more information on the study, please click here.