Thursday, 12 July 2012

Brilliant Brains


The brain is a fascinating organ, which has long captivated the human race, from Phrenology1 (the old belief of taking measurements of different areas of the skull to determine personality traits) to the homunculus2 (sections of the sensory and motor cortex are divided in to sections representing different parts of the body, the size of the section dependent on its sensitivity). Due to the complexity of the brain and that it is the controlling region for the entire body, it has long been believed that any damage to the brain would lead to sever disability or death. However that belief is now being challenged.


Recently an elderly man has been featured in the news because he lived for 94 years with a bullet in his head3, but what is maybe more surprising is that he lived a fairly normal life (he was blind in one eye with a slight facial distortion but had a normal job and a family). Another person gaining headlines for head trauma was a sixteen year old girl who was shot through the head with a spear gun while fishing4. She was conscious and felt fairly fine when she arrived at hospital where they removed the spear, and she recovered.


What is most striking about these two people (and the many other people who experience similar trauma who don’t make the news), is that they survive and have a normal life despite the damage to the brain. It is not to suggest that all head trauma is survivable, as it is heavily dependent on what parts of the brain are affected by the trauma. Trauma to the blood vessels that supply the brain or to the brain stem and cerebellum would almost always result in death. Other parts of the brain are more expendable, which challenges the old model of the brain being unable to change or grow new neurons.


Dramatic restructuring of the brain was thought impossible, but a ten year old girl was discovered to have something rather special. She had normal development except for mild seizures when she was three, and after a MRI they discovered she only had half a brain due to a fetal developmental defect5. This case was revolutionary in the field of neurology, as it showed the brain is able to rewire itself and function normally with only one hemisphere. Her brain even rewired both eyes to the one hemisphere, resulting in her being able to see both fields of vision in one eye.




Another woman was able to show that the development of mental disorders is not inevitable but can be challenged, and in some cases reversed6. This challenges the model that personality disorders like ADHD are irreversible, because with challenging cognitive exercises it has been shown to reduce phenotype. This adapts the individual to function more in society and not just get ‘written-off’ by both parents and teachers as untreatable. As research advances it is becoming clearer that the brain is not the fixed structure we once thought, but a highly adaptable organ, and the way we approach treating head injuries and mental disorders needs to change in reflection of these new discoveries.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homunculus
3. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2135871/William-Lawlis-Pace-dead-World-record-holder-living-longest-bullet-stuck-head-dies-103--nearly-95-YEARS-shot.html
4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18509408
5. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1200958/Girl-born-half-brain-person-world-fields-vision-eye.html
6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jun/12/barbara-arrowsmith-young-rebuilt-brain

E Markham (2012). Brilliant Brains Blogspot

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