The brain has a dramatic ability to forge new connections.

A study of two British foot painters, both born without arms because their pregnant mums were given Thalidomide, has shown a part of their brains usually devoted to finger activity has been repurposed to help out the toes.

The finding adds to the growing literature on neuroplasticity – the brain’s dramatic ability to forge new connections well into the lifespan – and will be leveraged in future research to see if robotic limb prostheses become represented in the brain in a similar way.

The stars of the study are Tom Yendell, a Hampshire-based batik artist, and Peter Longstaff, a former pig farmer whose disability forced him to drive his tractor barefoot in the Norfolk winter, but who now paints the snowy scenes instead.

Both artists paint with a brush held between their toes.

A team led by Daan Wesselink from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London (UCL) in the UK, used ultra-high-resolution MRI scans to examine the pair’s brain responses to having their toes tapped.

In this type of scan, the brain area responsible for sensing a body part lights up when it is stimulated. Repeat that everywhere and you end up with a sensory map of the entire body that can be sketched as a little person superimposed on the brain.

Unlike the duo’s art, however, it is not a pretty sight.

Read the full story in Cosmos magazine here