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Therapy Shows Promise In Rewiring Of Damaged Brain

November 25, 2001
Section: BAYLIFE
Page: 12

LINDSAY PETERSON - peterson@tampatrib.com
Memo: Reporter Lindsay Peterson can be reached at (813) 259-7834.

TAMPA - Imagine the brain as a house with many rooms full of furniture. If the tables and chairs in one room are destroyed, extra pieces from other rooms can be moved over to take their place.

But they don't go to the right place by themselves. They need a smart interior designer.

Researchers are learning more all the time about how the right therapy can "redesign" the brain of a victim of stroke or other serious brain damage.

"This is an incredibly exciting time for brain research," says Donalee Markus, a Chicago brain therapy specialist.

Experts long have known that a baby's damaged brain can repair itself. The infant brain cells haven't settled into specific roles, so cells from one area can be recruited to do the work of a damaged area.

"Genetics gives us the cells, but use tells them what to do," says Stanley Graven, an authority in infant development who directs the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies at the University of South Florida.

This ability to remodel, known as plasticity, distinguishes the brain from any other organism in the known universe, says neurologist Richard Restak, author of "The Secret Life of the Brain," the companion book to a public television series that starts Jan. 22.

Researchers still don't understand precisely the microscopic electrical and chemical interactions that remodel the brain. It's a new area of science, says Edward Taub of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Birmingham VA Medical Center.

Taub has developed a therapy, however, disproving beliefs that only the young brain can rewire itself.

He restrains the working limbs of stroke victims and uses intensive, six-hour daily therapy to get the patients to move disabled arms or legs. Not only have his subjects regained use of once-useless limbs, but scans also show growth in areas of their brains devoted to that function.

"This is cutting edge," he says.

Adds Restak: "That rewiring is possible only because the adult brain retains a good part of the plasticity it had when it was very immature."

The key is repetition and consistency in therapy, says neurologist Richard Senelick, medical director of HealthSouth Rehabilitation Institute of San Antonio.

The problem is that insurers often won't pay for the extended therapy needed, Senelick says. "People get written off way too early."

Cutline: "The Secret Life of the Brain," by Richard Restak, is the companion book to a five-part public television series set to begin Jan. 22.

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