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The amazing brain can rewire itself after traumatic injury

The human brain is often compared to a computer, but in reality the three pounds of tissue resting between your ears is much more complex and adaptable than any desktop, laptop or tablet computer you might own.

Doctors and rehabilitation specialists treating Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords hope they can encourage her brain to work around the severe injuries it sustained when she was shot in the head in January.

The 40-year-old Giffords faces long odds. National Public Radio reports that experts caution that someone who has experienced that type of brain injury is unlikely to ever be completely the same as she was before being wounded. Those same specialists offer hope, though: the human brain is remarkably flexible and many brain trauma victims can make startling recoveries from extensive damage.

The brain doesn't heal itself as much as it rewires itself. Neurons are the brain's electrically stimulated nerve cells. When neurons are damaged in a car accident or by gunfire, they can change their connection paths.

Healthy neurons can forge connections around damaged tissue, taking up some of the tasks left undone by those injured.

The new connections might require some new ways of doing things, however. In the NPR report, they cited an example of how this might work: a person who is used to driving to work by instinct before the brain trauma is sustained might need to lean on deliberate memorization in order to get to and from work afterwards.

Experts say that in most cases, people who suffer severe brain injuries are likely to have some degree of permanent impairment.

Doctors don't know yet what level of impairment, or what form that impairment might take in Giffords' case; in fact, they don't yet know if she will have impairment. They'll know much more about her brain's ability to adapt over the course of the first year following the shooting.

Here's hoping all the best for the Congresswoman in what might be a long and challenging recovery.

Resource: NPR: "Doctors Work To Help Giffords' Brain Rewire Itself": February 14, 2011

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