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Sujit Kumar smiles at the camera. He's relaxed and happy and the smile lights up his brown eyes. Could there even be a little cheekiness reflected in those eyes? The fact Sujit smiles so warmly is incredible in itself.

With the help of brain experts it is hoped more incredible progress is around the corner for this young man who grew up in a chicken coop, where he learned to make clucking noises but not to talk, yet who is beginning to behave more and more like a human.

Sujit's story is one of the most inexplicable and tragic cases of child abuse and neglect, and though it sounds too strange to be true, the evidence suggests the Fijian Indian man, now aged 36, really did spend his formative years with chickens.

Born in rural Fiji near Suva to a mother who killed herself and a father who was murdered, it is believed Sujit was put out with the chickens before he was two years old.

Neighbours reported seeing him, but nothing was done until he was eight, when instead of receiving special care he was put into an old people's home in Suva where he was tied to a bed like a wild dog.

This went on for 22 years. No one knew what to do with a young man who did not speak and who exhibited the behaviour of a chicken.

He didn't did he seem to be bonded to chickens either. His guardian and rescuer, Elizabeth Clayton, tested his response to chickens early on and said he ignored them.

Clayton, an Australian businesswoman in Fiji, met Sujit by chance when visiting the home to give a donation of furniture from Rotary. He was then 31 and covered in sores. He looked small but so wild, she says, and he tried to bite her.

She remembers him being given a tray of mushy food and tipping it on the floor then crouching and pecking at the food.

When he first arrived at the home he hopped like a chicken, perched and liked to roost on the floor rather than sleep in a bed.

WHAT a long way Sujit has come. What a long way he has to go.

Clayton is sitting in a boardroom in Auckland telling us how these days Sujit smiles at her and lays his head on her shoulder. He makes eye contact.

It seems he is developing empathy, taking baby steps on his way to behaving like a human.

More and more he appears to respond to words or cues. When Clayton asks him to take his shoes off, he puts his feet up for her. This is simply remarkable, says a Dutch woman in the boardroom with Clayton.

Margriet Sitskoorn is a professor of clinical neuropsychology from the University of Tilburg. She talks about the brain in a way lay people can understand.

Usually there are windows of opportunity for developing understanding and communication. Sujit missed these windows, yet, here he is developing anyway, albeit with endless patience from Clayton who describes herself not as his mum but as a fiercely protective aunty.

The women have come to Auckland because they have important and exciting business to discuss. Clayton, also with a background in behavioural psychology, has found someone from Auckland University's School of Psychology willing to help with the next step in Sujit's development.

The women hope ethics approval - yet to be sought - will be granted so detailed MRI scans can be taken of Sujit's brain, unlocking clues as to whether neural pathways exist for language.

Though not expecting miracles, the women wonder if Sujit could be able to understand language and, perhaps one day, speak. This is Clayton's dream.

When he's nervous, Sujit still makes a clicking sound, a bit like a nervous chicken. But generally the sounds he makes have changed in the six years since Clayton rescued him from the old people's home, from long screech noises to sounds which have a beginning and an end. In the car, he goes "brrrm brrrm."

Sitskoorn explains how babies make long sounds before they start to babble. Sujit's progress is tantalising.

Sitskoorn came across Sujit's existence when researching a book about brain plasticity and contacted Clayton. Brain plasticity is concerned with how your behaviour can change your brain and how your changing brain can change your behaviour.

The old dogma was that you were born, you had a certain brain and that was it for the rest of your life. Now, researchers say the things you are exposed to and do every day continue to form your brain throughout life.

Sitskoorn taps her finger repeatedly on the table. If you did this all day your brain would change from morning to evening.

"So what you actually do is change your brain all the time. When you are exposed to a lot of training in something, the brain will change more vigorously and also when things are involved with a lot of emotion, it will change more fast."

It doesn't matter what it is that you practise, even nagging, Sitskoorn laughs. If you nag all day you develop perfect nagging networks and the nagging becomes easier and easier.

So what does this mean for Sujit, a boy who lived with chickens and learned to behave like a chicken?

The possibilities are unknown, Sitskoorn says, which is why the scans are so important.

Sujit has already had a basic brain scan, a couple of years ago in Brisbane, in which his brain looked normal. But it is known Sujit has been abused (he was hit on the head with a crowbar when in the chicken pen) and that he has mild epilepsy.

Specialists have already ruled out cerebral palsy and autism and more detailed scans are needed, first to eliminate the possibility of brain damage which may not have shown up in the first scan, but also to show scientists what neural networks he has - or hasn't - developed.

"We call it fibre-tracking," says Sitskoorn.

"Are there the right connections, for example, between the different parts of the brain that are important for language? That's one of the questions we want to do here because if the network is there, of course we get more hopeful [that he might one day speak].

"But if we see that it's completely different to what we would expect in a normal brain, then it's a different story."

The idea would be to play vowels and human speech to Sujit as he lies inside the MRI machine.

Will the sounds be processed the same way as our brains would process them? Or will they be processed differently, or not at all?

Sitskoorn has other plans; more intriguing ones. How, for example, would Sujit's brain react to chicken sounds? She has already researched the sounds chickens make in specific situations. Sujit still makes a clicking sound when he is nervous "so is that processed in a language kind of way or not?"

The women stress the scan is for Sujit's benefit, and the science or potential breakthroughs secondary. With knowledge of his brain they can target his therapy.

But, yes, says Sitskoorn, it may well be that Sujit's brain will help push the boundaries of knowledge.

He is such an exceptional case, and his deprivation so severe, yet already there is evidence he is developing.

"So it shows us he is an extreme case against the dogma of 'once it's wrong, it's wrong forever'.

"What we can learn is that we know more about that ability of the brain, that even if you're an adult - because when he was found he was already for a long time an adult - still there is a lot to gain if you have the right rehabilitation."

An area Clayton wants Sitskoorn to look at is the part of the brain which controls anger. While Sujit is 36, cognitively he is like a toddler. When he wants something, or is not understood, he can throw a tantrum.

Sitskoorn says behaviour such as anger relates to the frontal lobe of the brain, the newest part of the brain in human. This part of the brain exists, she says, so we can look ahead and control things like motivation, anger and lust. It's what makes us civilised.

She is keen to look at this part of Sujit's brain because in order to be co-operative he must put himself in the place of the other person.

"He must be able to think, 'ah, that's what they want from me, that person is thinking this and that's why I have to do this,' which is a very big step."

Sitskoorn will be leading the research, if permission is granted, but will work alongside an Auckland University neuropsychologist, associate professor Ian Kirk, who specialises in brain plasticity and memory.

In his university office Kirk pulls up some colourful scans on his computer. This is what Sujit's brain could look like on a computer, he says.

He explains the scans will allow them to trace which parts of the brain are using oxygen, or the most oxygen, during a task. When an area of the brain is active it uses more oxygen.

They may use words Sujit may know - such as ice cream - and words he doesn't know - such as neuroscience - to see what happens.

If ice cream lights up but neuroscience doesn't, Kirk says it would be logical to think Sujit does have some understanding of words and evidence of some sort of understanding of language, which would be very encouraging.

He cautions that understanding language does not necessarily mean he will ever speak - though who knows?

The scientists could play him a nervous chicken noise and a happy chicken noise, and maybe different areas will light up.

"One of the things that could happen, I suppose, is that the chicken sources might provide us with a richer source of emotional information, for instance, than human noises do.

"So we could have some different-toned human noises and different-toned chicken noises and it could be that he really does have a much more sophisticated interpretation of chicken vocalisation than he does of human ones at the moment. I mean, this is wild speculation. This is the sort of thing we'll be looking at though."

It is already known that with some stroke victims the brain can rewire to allow recovery of function, such as in a paralysed arm.

Kirk says Sujit's case could answer some questions about how to induce brain plasticity changes in adults.

There is the ethics hurdle to jump, though, before the tests can go ahead. Kirk thinks the main ethical question will centre on Sujit's inability to give consent.

But he also thinks he may be viewed in the same way as an infant, and infants and children are scanned on a fairly regular basis.

If Sujit can communicate and better look after himself then his future is brighter, says Kirk, who is keen to become involved as a scientist, but also from a humanitarian point of view. Because the really astonishing thing about Sujit's story is that it ever happened in the first place:

"In some respects, this is the least we can do."

FUNDING A FUTURE FOR BOYS' HAPPY HOME

Until recently Sujit Kumar was living happily in a home for deprived boys in Suva called the Happy Home, established with the help of an international working bee, which included New Zealanders.

However, Fijian social welfare funding limits have meant he has been sent back to live with his guardian, Elizabeth Clayton.

Clayton, in her early 60s, fears not only will she not always be there to look out for him but that without urgent funding the home may close.

It is important that Sujit returns to the Happy Home as it provides an environment where people speak to him, where he can listen to conversations and has role models.

Great efforts have been made to make Sujit look "normal", otherwise people tend not to speak to him. He has had therapy so he straightens his arms rather than curling them up chicken-like and has new orthopaedic shoes which help him walk straighter.

In the home, while he still sometimes goes into a chicken position, the boys will push him off his haunches and tell him to "stop acting like a chicken".

A foundation is being set up in his name to provide long-term care, rehabilitation and education, not just for Sujit but for the other children at the Happy Home.

TradeMe millionaire Sam Morgan has been involved in setting up the foundation, which aims to establish an international board of trustees and a fund to assist in operational needs.

Though many people worldwide have provided financial and social support for Sujit and the Happy Home, urgent funding is needed to keep it going and long-term funding is needed for Sujit's future.

Donations can be made to:

Bank: Auckland Savings Bank (ASB) 3 Wyndham St, Auckland

Account Name: The Rotary Club of Auckland Inc - The Sujit Kumar Foundation

Account No: 12-3081-0140876-03, or at any branch of the ASB, Reference/Code: SujitKumar

THE WOMAN WHO RESCUED THE CHICKEN BOY

It was 2004 and one of those amazing moments. We were covering Fiji's biggest drug bust - a factory in industrial Suva had been turned into a giant methamphetamine lab that, if the chemicals had ignited, would have blown out half the neighbourhood.

Rotarian Elizabeth Clayton lived above her furniture factory next door to the drugs lab. We chatted for a bit and then she mentioned, fairly casually, that having lessons in part of her factory was a Fijian Indian man who had been raised by chickens. We took a breath.

Chickens? She had to be joking.

Come and meet him, she said. At that stage Sujit had made advances since his 15 months in Clayton's care. But not many.

He curled his hands upwards towards his chest, claw-like. He made strange noises. His eyes seemed blank. He was detached. He ignored Clayton's dog and he looked at us as if we weren't there.