More evidence of the human brain’s incredible plasticity has come to the fore through a new study of foot painters — professional painters who paint with their feet. Using the feet as hands, the study shows, has led the brain to “see” toes as fingers — almost.

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A new study shows just how adaptable the human brain is.

The somatosensory cortex is the region of the brain that receives and processes sensory stimuli from the body, including those of touch.

In this brain region, each finger is mapped separately as an independent entity. In humans, the same is not typically true of toes.

Yet nonhuman primates, which use hands and feet equally for dextrous activities, such as climbing, do have distinct brain areas for each finger and toe.

In a new study, led by researchers from University College London (UCL), in the United Kingdom, the investigators were interested in finding out whether human brains are able to adapt and learn to “view” each toe separately, much like their fingers.

The researchers worked with two foot artists — both males in their 50s — since painting requires dexterity and precision, meaning that individuals who use their feet for such dextrous activities have learned to use them much in the same way that they would use hands. The two professional artists also use their feet to accomplish daily tasks, such as getting dressed and typing.

“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,” says lead author Daan Wesselink.

“But in other nonhuman primate species, who regularly use their toes for dextrous tasks like climbing, both the toes and fingers are specifically represented in their brains,” he adds.

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.”

Daan Wesselink