Montefiore in the News
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Montefiore in the News

March 22, 2023

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio version of this story mistakenly refers to Michael Granovetter as a "Doctor". He is a PhD. NPR reserves the honorific "Doctor" for Medical Doctors.]


When a brain is injured, it recovers by rewiring. The process is known as brain plasticity. As part of an occasional series on brain plasticity, NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on an extreme example - children who lose an entire side of their brain.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: In most people, speech and language live in the brain's left hemisphere. Mora Leeb is not most people.

Hi, Mora. How are you doing?

MORA LEEB: Good. How are you, Jon?

HAMILTON: Mora, who is 15, has grown up without the left side of her brain. She likes tennis and soccer, getting her nails done and jokes.

MORA: How do you make a hot dog stand?

HAMILTON: I don't know. How do you?

MORA: Take away its chair.

HAMILTON: Somehow Mora's right hemisphere has taken on jobs usually done on the left side - functions like speaking and reading. Mora describes her right-brained life this way.

MORA: Personally, I am - can be described as a glass-half-full girl.

HAMILTON: A glass-half-full girl who shows just how plastic the brain can be. Scientists hope that by studying people like Mora, they can help others recover from less severe brain injuries. About two months before Mora was born, she had a massive stroke, though no one knew it at the time. Her mom, Ann Leeb, says her daughter seemed like a typical baby at first. She smiled. She rolled over.

ANN LEEB: And then in the holiday season of 2007, all of these milestones sort of stopped.

HAMILTON: Leeb says Mora was just 3 months old when she began having epileptic seizures.

LEEB: These seizures started to cluster, and there were 20 of them in a minute, and then there were hundreds of them a day.

HAMILTON: Doctors ordered an MRI of Mora's brain. They showed the image to Ann and her husband, Seth.

LEEB: Seth and I have no background in medicine, but you just didn't need it to read that MRI. Half of her brain was lit up and the other half her brain was basically gray.

HAMILTON: Most of the cells were damaged or dead, and the ones left were causing seizures. So surgeons removed most of the left side of Mora's brain, including areas that were still controlling movement on one side.

LEEB: Basically, the surgery created a newborn. She could no longer roll over. She could no longer smile. It was almost like a restart.

HAMILTON: Ann and Seth Leeb focused on getting their daughter the best physical and cognitive therapies available. And gradually, Mora began to improve.

LEEB: At 18 months, she finally sat up. And at 23 months, she finally walked.

HAMILTON: When Mora was 6 1/2, she began using sentences. At her bat mitzvah, she gave a short speech. Researchers say one key to Mora's recovery is that her brain injury occurred very early in life, a period when the wiring is still a work in progress. For example, in adults, words are generally processed in the left brain, while faces are processed in the right. But Dr. Michael Granovetter of the University of Pittsburgh says that's not true in infants.

MICHAEL GRANOVETTER: Your brain doesn't start out having word recognition completely on the left and face recognition completely on the right.

HAMILTON: Early on, Granovetter says, these two functions are competing for space, so the brain pushes them to opposite sides. But what happens in people like Mora?

GRANOVETTER: If this competition between word recognition and face recognition in the brain plays out over development, what if only one hemisphere was available? What might we see? Can one hemisphere actually take on the burden of two?

HAMILTON: To find out, Granovetter and a team of researchers studied face and word recognition in 40 people, including Mora. They'd all lost either the right or left hemisphere as children. ?Marlene Behrmann of the University of Pittsburgh says in grown-up brains, a stroke on the left side can permanently affect skills like reading.

?MARLENE BEHRMANN: Even if it is really a focal and circumscribed injury, they will be profoundly impaired at word recognition.

HAMILTON: A right brain stroke can permanently impair the ability to recognize faces. So Behrmann says the team expected to see big deficits in people who'd lost an entire hemisphere.

BEHRMANN: Much to our surprise, we found that that's absolutely not true. Irrespective of whether the left or the right hemisphere is preserved, these kids can recognize both faces and words.

HAMILTON: With about 80% accuracy, compared with greater than 90% in typical people. That difference is significant, but far less than people who experience brain injuries later in life when the brain's wiring is less malleable. Dr. Lisa Shulman is a neurodevelopmental pediatrician at Montefiore in New York. She says Mora's brain does have limitations.

LISA SHULMAN: She speaks and processes very slowly, despite normal hearing. She has almost a telegraphic quality to her speech - one word at a time.

HAMILTON: Shulman says that's common among people with damage to the left brain.

SHULMAN: When you lose that left side, which is controlling a lot of motor functioning, it can impact the mouth, the tongue, the palate, how all those things come into play.

HAMILTON: Even so, Shulman says Mora's progress has been remarkable.

SHULMAN: Every time I see her, she's done something I could not have imagined when I first met her.

HAMILTON: Ann Leeb says her daughter, who didn't use sentences until she was 6 1/2, now loves to watch game shows involving words and phrases.

LEEB: Do not call our house between 7 and 8 in the evening because we are devoted "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel Of Fortune" fans.

HAMILTON: Mora also understands language concepts like...

MORA: ...Idioms.

HAMILTON: Idioms? Do you have a favorite idiom?

MORA: Glass half full and rose-colored glasses.

HAMILTON: But other cognitive tasks can be a challenge. For example, sometimes Mora has trouble understanding what she's reading, and she could be thrown by an unfamiliar concept or a sneaky punch line.

MORA: So can you tell me a joke?

HAMILTON: OK, I'll tell you a joke. So a termite walks into a bar and says, where is the bartender?

Bad joke. And you've got to know that termites like to munch on softer wood.

LEEB: OK. That didn't go over so well, Jon (laughter).

HAMILTON: I know. I know. But I'm not the one who's good at telling jokes here.

Even so, Ann Leeb says a termite in a bar is exactly the kind of idea that's still hard for her daughter to process on the fly. And Mora has other challenges. The right side of her body will never be as strong as the left. She'll never see things in the visual field to the right of her nose. Yet Ann says when it comes to cognitive functions, her daughter's brain is still rewiring and adapting.

LEEB: She's met so many expectations and gone beyond. Check in with us, Jon, in five years, and we'll be telling you more.

HAMILTON: In the meantime, Mora's 15-year-old brain has clearly reached another developmental milestone.

LEEB: I have challenges of being the mother of a teenager. So, you know, in the morning she doesn't want to get out of bed. In the evening, she doesn't want to go to bed.

HAMILTON: And when she's awake, Mora likes to chat - a lot.

MORA: Goodbye.

HAMILTON: It is great to talk to you, Mora. Bye-bye.

MORA: Can I keep talking to you?

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.


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