Imagine experiencing pain in a limb that isn’t there. Many amputees continue to ‘feel’ phantom pain from lost limbs, years after their surgery. Pictured at the top here, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to scan the brain activity of sixteen amputees. When asked to imagine moving their lost hands, many of the amputees showed increased activity (coloured red and yellow here) in a specific area of the brain that once communicated with their absent limbs. The bottom set of MRI scans, from people who were born without one of their hands, have not lit up in the same way, showing their brains have no such ‘memory’ of a missing limb. Investigating why amputee’s brains are haunted by lost limbs tells us a great deal about how the brain reacts and adapts to trauma, and might one day guide clinical therapies to regulate brain activity and exorcise phantom pains.
Written by John Ankers
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