'Brain Retraining' Gives Hope to Stroke Patients

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Scientists debate endlessly whether we will ever really understand the workings of the mind — and every once in a while they're given reason to hope. The latest source of optimism is a study published in Friday's issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, which shows for the first time that a new type of rehabilitation may help stroke victims regain nearly full use of their paralyzed limbs. The experimental therapy, employed by researchers at the University of Alabama and the Friedrich Schiller University in Germany, involves immobilizing the good arm of a stroke victim and forcing the patient to use their "bad" arm to perform daily tasks. Patients performed the exercises six hours a day for two weeks.

When the course of therapy was complete, a brain scan indicated renewed muscle activity in the paralyzed limb — a finding that seems to vindicate scientists' previous theory that the brain can, in fact, be actively rewired. "For years there's been hope that you can retrain the brain," says TIME medical correspondent Christine Gorman. As our understanding of the brain becomes more sophisticated, Gorman explains, we get further from the erroneous idea that the brain is static, or fixed. "Now we know that tasks like learning a language or playing a new instrument change the brain," Gorman says. And although the stroke therapy remains experimental, it offers renewed hope for even more dramatic and practical discoveries down the road.