There’s good news for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Doctors say that she’s recovering by “leaps and bounds” after being shot point-blank in the head in January. In fact, you may have recently seen her walking up the stairs of an airplane to go watch her astronaut husband take flight in the space shuttle. Experts claim that Giffords’ case is a shining example of the brain’s ability to restore some functions after being substantially injured – what’s called “plasticity.”
The after-effects of a severe brain injury aren’t like they used to be. In the past, victims went into a partial or full-blown coma, and because of a lack of life support, they usually died before they recovered. Even after cardiac life support and ventilators were introduced 50 years ago, most doctors still didn’t think patients with head injuries would regain much function. With advancements in technology and more in-depth brain studies – there are a lot more survivors like Giffords. For example, the Centers for Disease Control say that over one-and-a-half million Americans a year suffer traumatic brain injuries, and 80 percent of them are treated in the ER and go home.
Dr. Stephan Mayer is a professor of neurological surgery. He says that we’ve underestimated the resilience of the human brain. For instance, doctors now know that adults can form new brain cells, and with rehab, a brain injury patient may be able to form new brain connections - which allow them to move and talk again. That’s not all. Even when parts of the brain are damaged, destroyed, missing – and in some cases surgically removed - the remaining parts learn how to take over the functions that were lost. Experts say this may be how Giffords has recovered her ability to do basic tasks, like walk.