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The 7:30 Report Transcript
Reporter: Natasha Johnson
KERRY O'BRIEN: Botulinum toxin is one of the most poisonous substances on the planet, but its potential as a biological weapon hasn't stopped it becoming one of the most popular cosmetic treatments for wrinkles.
Vanity and weapons aside, the toxin, more commonly known as Botox, is playing an important role in treating cerebral palsy.
So far it's only approved for treatment of children whose cerebral palsy causes them to walk on their toes.
But Melbourne researchers are experimenting with a combination of botox and intensive physiotherapy to treat affected arms.
And the testing produced a surprising discovery that children's brains could actually reorganise to improve their motor skills.
Natasha Johnson reports.
NATASHA JOHNSON: Amelia Frame likes to think of herself as just like any other eight-year-old.
But, until recently, she struggled to perform the kinds of tasks most of her friends take for granted, like tying up shoelaces.
She has cerebral palsy, which is caused by brain damage suffered around the time of birth, which affects motor skills.
Its severity can vary widely but, in Amelia's case, it affects her right side only, impeding use of her right arm and leg.
MARIA FRAME: When she was first diagnosed, they weren't sure whether she was going to be able to walk.
They thought her right arm, which has being affected, was actually going to end up being a paperweight.
She was fairly dependent on Malcolm and myself helping her dress and also with some of her -- at meal times, cutting up her food, if she was at school, just catching a ball, that sort of thing.
She's had problems with coordination.
NATASHA JOHNSON: From six months of age, Amelia Frame has undergone intensive therapies to help her overcome her disability.
One of the most successful has been injections of the deadly nerve agent Botulinum toxin to treat walking on her toes, a common problem for children with cerebral palsy.
The toxin, commonly known as botox, is a popular cosmetic treatment for ironing out wrinkles.
But it's also effective in relieving muscle spasms and spasticity caused by cerebral palsy.
ROSLYN BOYD, MURDOCH CHILDREN'S RESEARCH INSTITUTE: It is quite ironic when you say to parents, "This is a deadly toxin and we would like to inject small quantities."
But we know we can do that safely.
NATASHA JOHNSON: After successfully being treated with botox to improve her walking, Amelia Frame happily volunteered for a research project trialling Botulinum toxin injected into her arm, combined with intensive physio and occupational therapy.
Researchers from Melbourne's Brain Research Institute and the Murdoch Children's Research Institute then tested the effectiveness of the therapy by scanning her brain while she tapped her affected finger.
She was scanned and tested performing various tasks before treatment, three weeks later and then a further three months after treatment.
MARIA ROSLYN BOYD: Amelia had a lot of difficulty with very fine movements and she had a lot of difficulty lifting her wrist up and turning her hand over and being able to grasp her thumb and finger together, and now she can do those activities much more easily.
NATASHA JOHNSON: While delighted to see her movements improving, what excited researchers even more was what the scan showed had happened to her brain in the three months of treatment.
The green on Amelia's first scan indicates the limited ability she has on one side of her brain to move her affected finger.
Three weeks later, the yellow indicates greater activity on both sides of her brain to move her finger.
Her third scan shows an unexpected switch in activity to the opposite side of the brain.
PROFESSOR GRAEME JACKSON, BRAIN RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Twelve weeks later is the most dramatic of these.
She's now got a classic pattern of activity that we would see in you or I, except it's on the opposite side of the brain.
It's gone from the normal side in the first scan to a normal pattern on the opposite side after three months.
And that's really quite extraordinary.
NATASHA JOHNSON: In fact, researchers say the part of Amelia's brain that has now taken over operating her affected right finger is the same part of her brain that already operates her unaffected left finger.
PROFESSOR GRAEME JACKSON: This is the part of her brain that was being used to control, in this case, her left hand and now it's being used to control both her left and her right hand.
It seems that what she's done is she's learned to suppress the bad bit of her brain and reinforce the pathways that are there that attach that finger to the good bit of her brain.
NATASHA JOHNSON: What this means, the researchers believe, is that the brain can reorganise itself, challenging previously held beliefs that the brain wasn't flexible beyond the early years of childhood.
PROFESSOR GRAEME JACKSON: Neurologists have always thought that, if you then damage a bit, you can't reorganise the brain after a certain critical period of age.
This suggests that that age may be most of our life or even may be a fundamental mechanism of the brain.
Now, that might not have surprised some fundamental scientists in a lab somewhere but in clinical medicine that's a really fairly radical concept.
NATASHA JOHNSON: The researchers scanned 10 children for the study.
All showed some brain changes but three experienced the dramatic reorganisation displayed by Amelia Frame.
They now need to expand the study, with the next step to identify exactly which therapies and how much of them trigger brain change.
ROSLYN BOYD: Is more therapy going to be even more effective or would that be too much?
Should we be doing that in short bursts or over a longer period?
So we can start to look and examine exactly how the brain adapts.
NATASHA JOHNSON: While this study has focused on cerebral palsy, researchers are using the scanning technology to test for brain reorganisation in other conditions like epilepsy, schizophrenia and stroke.
Such discoveries may arouse excitement amongst medical professionals, but it's not even close to that felt by Amelia Frame and her family.
MARIA FRAME: It makes us extremely happy -- peace of mind that we know that she's going to be able to cope as she gets older.
Something as simple as tying up a shoelace, for us, was just a huge thing.
It was just great.
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