Artists who paint with their feet have ‘toe maps’ in their brains

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Two
artists who paint with their toes have unusual neural footprints in their
brains. Individual toes each take over discrete territory, creating
a well-organized “toe map,”
researchers report September 10 in Cell Reports.

Similar
brain organization isn’t thought to exist in people with typical toe dexterity.
So finding these specialized maps brings scientists closer to understanding how
the human brain senses the body, even when body
designs differ
(SN: 6/12/19).

“Sometimes,
having the unusual case — even the very rare one — might give you important
insight into how things work,” says neuroscientist Denis Schluppeck of the
University of Nottingham in England, who was not involved in the study.

The
skills of the two artists included in the study are certainly rare. Both were
born without arms due to the drug thalidomide, formerly used to treat morning
sickness in pregnant women. As a result, both men rely heavily on their feet,
which possess the dexterity to eat with cutlery, write and use computers.

The
brain carries a map of areas that handle sensations from different body parts;
sensitive fingers and lips, for example, have big corresponding areas. But so far,
scientists haven’t had much luck in pinpointing areas of the human brain that
respond to individual toes (although toe regions have been found in the brains
of nonhuman primates). But because these men use their feet in unusually
skilled ways, researchers wondered if their brains might represent toes a bit
differently.

The
two artists, along with nine other people with no special foot abilities, underwent
functional MRI scans while an experimenter gently touched each toe. For many people,
the brain areas that correspond to individual toes aren’t discrete, says neuroscientist
Daan Wesselink of University College London. But in the foot artists’ brains,
“we found very distinct locations for each of their toes.” When each toe was
touched, a patch of brain became active, linking neighboring toes to similarly
neighboring areas of the brain.

Tom Yendell sitting in a chair and painting using his feet
Tom Yendell, who was born without arms, creates detailed paintings with his feet and mouth. “I just have a different way of doing things,” the British artist said in an interview with the online magazine Disability Horizons. That difference can be mapped in his brain, a study finds.Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists

The
finding was enabled by using a particularly powerful MRI machine that had the strength
to reveal the relatively small and hard-to-see toe maps, Schluppeck says.

Researchers don’t yet know when this map in the brain gets drawn, or whether intense toe training might allow people to create toe maps in their brains — an idea that draws skepticism. Wesselink suspects that the artists’ toe maps were created very early on, and sharpened over decades of sophisticated toe use. “When you use your body in a different way, from very young, your brain develops differently,” he says.

Dan Feldman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, describes the mark that the toes leave on the brain as a kind of sensory autobiography. “Here, these two individuals had a particularly unique sensory experience, and one can see the trace of that in their brains.”


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Originally posted by: Laura Sanders

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