“Describe and evaluate evidence of plasticity and functional recovery after trauma in the brain" (16 marks).


Describe (6 marks)

Plasticity refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt as a result of learning or experience. Functional recovery is a specific form of plasticity and takes place following trauma. The brain is able to transfer functions (such as language processing) from damaged sections to undamaged ones, so that an individual remains able to perform a certain function. Research into plasticity is shown through Maguire's 2000 study of black cab drivers in London, who had a greater volume of grey matter in their posterior hippocampi the longer they had worked as a driver - the learning as a result changed their brain structure. Furthermore, the case study of Gabby Giffords who was shot in the head at a point-blank range, but was able make incredible progress and could walk perfectly, read, write and speak short phrases just within a few months of the tragedy. These stu provide evidence for plasticity and functional recovery in the brain.  

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Evaluate 1

A strength of the evidence into plasticity is that it is reliable. As a brain scan (fMRI) method was used, there is a great degree of control due to the objective method. Furthermore, it is able to be repeated easily, as anyone with access to an fMRI machine can replicate this study. Draganski (2006) performed a similar study on medical students before and after their final exams, and found corresponding results to Maguire - they had higher volumes of grey matter in the posterior hippocampus. Similarly, Mechelli (2004) used the same method and discovered that bilingual individuals had a larger parietal cortex than monolingual counterparts. This is important as reliability helps to ensure that findings are accurate, and allows for biopsychologists to develop their understanding of learning and the effects it has on brain structure. 

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Evaluate 2

A weakness of evidence into plasticity is that is it is based on small samples, which may be open to bias. Maguire only used 16, right-handed, male participants in her sample, and compared them with 50 right-handed males in the control group. Using such a small sample of only men may cause the issue of beta bias to arise. Beta bias in terms of gender bias in psychological research is the minimising of differences between the sexes, usually as research is only based on one gender, in this case males. This evidence is subjected to beta bias as it assumes that both male and female brain plasticity works in the same way, which leads to androcentrism. This is important as from this evidence, we cannot explain female plasticity and can only infer the same process occurs in both men and women. 

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Evaluate 3 (Strength of FR)

A strength of evidence supporting functional recovery is that it has practical applications. Studying functional recovery in patients that have suffered stroke, traumatic brain injury or in individuals such as Gabby Giffords allows medical professionals to develop treatments and therapies which can help to restore and recover the brain. Electrical stimulation of the brain combined with physical therapy can allow the brain to recover fully and transfer any functions to undamaged parts of the brain, allowing the individuals to regain most of their functioning and be able to continue their lives without much impact. This is important as it allows for individuals such as Gabby Giffords who have been affected by brain trauma to be able to recover effectively and limit the impact their experience has on their lives. 

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Evaluate 4 (Weakness of FR)

A weakness of evidence supporting functional recovery of the brain is that it is based on case studies. As a case study, such as that of Gabby Giffords, is based on one person, it is difficult to generalise the results to the wider population or across genders, ethnicities or traumas. As Giffords was shot in the head, her functional recovery would be different to a stroke patient. This means it is hard to generalise functional recovery. This is important as it means that there may not be just one definition or process of functional recovery, but is rather an umbrella term which differs between individual circumstances. 

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