Avital Hahamy

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Title of my talk: On the other hand: questioning the origins of sensorimotor plasticity.

Abstract: Sensory brain regions deprived of their natural inputs may be “recruited” to process different kinds of inputs, a phenomenon termed plasticity.  For example, when individuals who are missing a hand (due to amputation or congenital malformation) move other body-parts, their deprived cortical hand regions show increased activity compared to two-handed controls. These findings have been taken as indication that the deprived cortical hand region can process inputs from other body parts. Further research has proposed that the new information processed by the deprived cortical hand region can only originate from body-parts whose neural representations neighbor the hand region on the cerebral cortex. In other words, it is currently assumed that the cortical hand region is subject to plasticity, which is restricted by the somatotopic layout of body-part representations in the cerebral cortex. My talk will take a critical view of these assumptions by describing findings from multiple large cohorts of individuals born without one hand (hereafter, one-handers), based on an array of behavioral and neuroimaging methods (including task-based activity, resting state connectivity, DTI and MR spectroscopy). I will bring forward other potential drivers of cortical sensorimotor plasticity, including adaptive behavior and sub-cortical somatotopy. In addition, I will question whether the observed changes in brain activity of one-handers truly reflect brain plasticity.

Bio: Avital completed her PhD at the Weizmann Institute, Israel, under the supervision of Prof. Rafael Malach. In her PhD research, Avital used fMRI to study spontaneous brain activity in clinical populations, including individuals with autism, schizophrenia, visual agnosia or congenital hand absence. Her research was based on several international collaborations, resulted in high impact publications, and was awarded national and international awards, including funding for her PhD awarded by the Israel national president’s award for scientific excellence and innovation. Avital is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging in London, where she works with Prof. Tim Behrens on understanding how the human brain represents an internal model of the environment. Her postdoctoral research is supported by multiple awards and fellowships, such as the Human Frontiers Science Program, an EMBO Long-Term Fellowship and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowships.

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