Swallowing problems can affect as many as one in three patients in the period immediately after a stroke. In some cases this can lead to serious morbidity, in particular malnutrition and pulmonary aspiration. Despite this, swallowing usually recovers to a safe level in the majority of patients within weeks. This propensity for recovery is likely to relate to how the swallowing motor cortex is organized and then reorganized after cerebral injury. In this review, we examine present knowledge on the cortical control of swallowing in humans, and examine the aspects of its organization that are important for compensating for recovery after damage. In addition, we examine approaches which may be useful in speeding up the process of recovery. Swallowing may turn out to be a useful model for studying central nervous system plasticity.

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Author notes

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This paper was awarded the Glaxo/MRS Young Investigator Prize at the MRS Meeting, Royal College of Physicians, London, on 19 May 1999.