Tom Yendell and Peter Longstaff are good at thinking on their feet. They have to be: Both were born without arms. But both still became painters, thanks to the extraordinary dexterity of their toes.
And that’s not all their feet can do. From an early age, both men have used their lower extremities to master everyday tasks typically performed with hands, including eating, writing, and typing—actions that appear to have prompted reorganizations in their brains.
While non-disabled individuals typically have well-defined “hand maps” in their brains, with each finger holding dominion over a defined region, Yendell and Longstaff have “toe maps” that appear to be just as powerful and precise, according to new research. The study, published today in the journal Cell Reports, showcases the flexibility of the human brain—potentially providing insights into how mind and body communicate across the spectrum of ability.
“Sometimes, having the unusual case—even the very rare one—might give you important insight into how things work,” neuroscientist Denis Schluppeck of the University of Nottingham in England, who was not involved in the study, told Laura Sanders at Science News.
Yendell and Longstaff are two of only three foot artists in the United Kingdom. Both were born to mothers who were treated during pregnancy with the drug thalidomide, which was later discovered to cause birth defects.
“These guys have spent their lives gaining expertise with using their feet,” study author Tamar Makin, a neuroscientist at University College London, told Francie Diep at The New York Times.
Makin and her colleagues suspected that this unique developmental trajectory likely had lasting impacts on the brain, which possesses a sensory “map” of different body parts, allocating space proportionally to sensitivity (fingers and lips, for instance, usually occupy larger regions of the brain than areas like the back).
To spot discrepancies, the researchers performed brain scans on Yendell and Longstaff, along with nine volunteers who had arms and typical toe dexterity.
As expected, these latter nine individuals had a typical brain “footprint”: a solid region with no delineations representing individual toes. Yendell and Longstaff’s brains, however, were far more finely tuned, with clear-cut toe regions arranged in order. And when each of their toes was touched, the corresponding region of the brain lit up in an fMRI.
“We’re talking here about a whole map that doesn’t usually exist in adults,” Ella Striem-Amit, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University who was not involved in the study, told Diep.
Makin thinks that continued research in this area may someday aid training programs for individuals who don’t have full use of existing limbs, such as those with cerebral palsy, Diep reports. It’s also possible that the findings could help people who have suffered injuries as adults, like stroke victims, but that’s not a guarantee. Yendell and Longstaff both began training their feet at a very young age, and it’s likely there’s a limited window of time in which such drastic brain map rearrangements are possible—one that closes before adulthood, study author Daan Wesselink, also of University College London, said in a statement.
Yendell doesn’t consider his life to be any different from those of his non-disabled peers, Diep reports. The skills he’s acquired with his feet, he said, give him the same opportunities as people with arms. “How did you figure out how to do things with your hands?” he said. “You don’t need to be shown how to do it. You just do it naturally.”