Epileptic Girl Who Had Half Her Brain Removed Can Read After Organ Rewired Itself

The brains of children have a "remarkable" ability to rewire. That's according to scientists that studied children who were able to read despite having part of the organ removed to treat severe epilepsy.

One case saw a 14-year-old girl with severe epilepsy, who had the left side of her brain removed to treat the drug-resistant condition. After surgeons removed the segment—which is used in reading—scans showed this ability had been rewired on her right brain hemisphere, according to Erez Freud, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at York University's Faculty of Health and Centre for Vision Research in Canada.

"What we're seeing is remarkable," Freud said in a statement.

The study involved 10 children aged between six and 17 with severe epilepsy who did not respond to drugs, and so opted for surgery to treat their condition. The majority of these children developed epilepsy after experiencing an event like a stroke or because of a tumor. A further 10 healthy children acted as the control group in the study.

During surgery, six of the children lost the part of the brain that helps us to see: the visual cortex. Of the total, three lost the right side and three the left. Four of these permanently suffered losses in their peripheral vision. In a further four, parts of the brain not linked to perception were removed.

The team studied the brains and visual abilities of the children by asking them to complete tasks like reading, naming objects and locations, and recognizing faces. The children were also instructed to look at images of words, objects, faces and locations while positioned in an MRI scanner to measure their brain activity.

Apart from two children who had the biggest amount of visual cortex removed, all of the participants were able to complete the tasks to a normal level.

Marlene Behrmann, professor at the department of psychology, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and senior author of the study told Newsweek the results of the study speak to the brain's significant capacity for functional recovery.

"We already know that there are more opportunities for plasticity in childhood, when the brain is not yet fully mature and there is some potential for rewiring, than in adulthood," explained Behrmann.

"It was remarkable that even with just the visual system intact in one hemisphere of the brain, behavior was normal," she said. "We also showed that the visual system in the remaining part of the brain was entirely normal in the way the areas respond to visual stimulation, in the exact location in which these responsive areas were situated and in the nature of the information coded in these preserved areas."

A number of studies have looked at language and memory function changes for people who have undergone these procedures, but little attention has been given to the potential changes to the visual system, continued Behrmann.

Using the term "resection" to describe the surgery, Behrmann said: "This study reveals the potential for recovery of visual function even in cases with dramatic resections, for example, the entire visual system of one hemisphere of the brain."

Addressing the limitations of the study, Behrmann acknowledged that 10 children was a small number to study.

Next, the team will try to find out how the residual regions of the brain can play the role of the entire visual system of a normal individual.

She hopes the work could inspire study into brain plasticity in connection with other conditions like stroke, and in turn help to develop treatments to help patients recover.

The findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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Scientists have studied the brains of children who have undergone surgery for severe epilepsy. Getty