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Date published: 2019-09-11
Originally published: Here. Excerpt below.


Using your feet like hands can cause organised 'hand-like' maps of the toes in the brain, never before documented in people, finds a new UCL-led study of two professional foot painters.
These findings, published in Cell Reports, demonstrate an extreme example of how the human body map can change in response to experience.
"For almost all people, each of our fingers is represented by its own little section of the brain, while there's no distinction between brain areas for each of our toes," said the study's lead author, Ph.D. student Daan Wesselink (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and University of Oxford).
"But in other non-human primate species, who regularly use their toes for dextrous tasks like climbing, both the toes and fingers are specifically represented in their brains. Here, we've found that in people who use their toes similarly to how other people use their fingers, their toes were represented in their brains in a way never seen before in people."
The two study participants are among three professional foot painters in the UK who paint holding paintbrushes between their toes. They also use their toes regularly for everyday tasks such as dressing themselves, using cutlery and typing. To do what most people would do with their two hands, both artists typically use one foot for highly dextrous tasks while using the other foot to stabilise.
Their distinctive experiences extend beyond behaviour; by not regularly wearing enclosed footwear, the foot painters get more complex touch experiences on their toes. This may also have impacted brain development of these organised toe maps.
For the study, funded by Wellcome and the Royal Society, the foot painters (as well as 21 people born with two hands, who served as a control group) completed a series of tasks testing their sensory perception and motor control of their toes.
The participants then underwent ultra high-resolution fMRI brain scanning of the brain's body areathe somatosensory cortex. While ...


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