The brain has a remarkable ability to recover after injury at any age, say scientists.
The brain is 'plastic' even in adulthood
Although it is early days, the research might eventually help stroke or multiple sclerosis (MS) patients regain lost powers of mobility.
It had been assumed by some that the brain was better able to adapt to injury in childhood.
However, preliminary work in the United States suggests even the adult brain can re-wire itself to help the body recover motor functions such as hand movement.
Two researchers in the US carried out brain scans of 27 patients who had regained the use of their hands after stroke, MS or cerebral palsy.
Daniel Hier and Jun Wang found that the brains of all patients had been able to re-organise regardless of age.
Regions of the brain such as the cerebellum were able to take over the function of the primary motor cortex, which normally controls hand movement. This seemed to compensate for reduced neurological activity in the damaged area of the brain.
The pair had expected to find more extensive reorganisation in the six patients with cerebral palsy, reasoning that their brains would have had more time to adapt.
Dr Daniel Hier, of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, believes the research has implications for rehabilitation strategies.
"In future studies, we'll analyse whether rehabilitation can influence the pattern of motor reorganisation after brain damage and whether certain patterns of reorganisation produce better patient outcomes," he said.
A spokesperson from The Stroke Association in the UK said the results confirmed those of other research projects.
"The brain is a remarkable organ and is capable of adapting to change.
"In the weeks and months following a stroke, many partially-damaged cells recover and start to work again.
"Meanwhile, other unaffected parts of the brain take over jobs that were previously performed by the brain cells which were destroyed."
Mike O'Donovan, Chief Executive of the MS Society, said the results would be studied with interest by those involved in MS rehabilitation and they looked forward to seeing the outcome of further research.
The study is to be presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Honolulu.