They studied a quadriplegic person who kept those brain capabilities five years after being completely paralyzed by a spinal cord injury.
The findings appear online this week and in the Dec. 24 print issue of the National Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare brain patterns in the quadriplegic person and in a healthy control subject.
In this study, brain images were taken to measure the participants' brain response to touch and brain activity during movement. In the touch test, a massage vibrator was applied to the left hand or left foot.
During the activity test, the participants followed the image of a tennis ball with either their tongue or their left index finger. For example, if the ball moved up, they would move either their tongue or left index finger up.
The study found that brain activity was normal in both subjects, but the quadriplegic person had slightly stronger and more widespread brain activity.
More studies are needed to determine what this finding might mean for people recovering from spinal cord injuries.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more information about spinal cord injury.