Ignorance can sometimes be bliss. Had he not developed a weakness in his leg and gone to a clinic for medical advice he’d never have been any the wiser…
It was 2007. The patient was a 44 year old French civil servant, happily married with two children and quite unaware that according to known medical science he ought to be six feet under.
His medical records showed that as a six month old baby he had to have a shunt inserted into his brain to drain away hydrocephalus – more familiarly known as water on the brain. The shunt was removed when he was 14 and since then he never had any reason to suspect anything amiss as he was quite healthy.
The medicos decided to run a few scans using CT technology and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). They weren’t prepared for what they would find. The lateral ventricles holding the cerebrospinal fluid that cushions the brain were so enlarged that they had “annexed” most of his brain space. The frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobes on both the left and the right were reduced, leaving just a few cortical neurons clinging like stalactites to the top of it. Key parts of the brain considered vital for consciousness were missing entirely.
Lionel Feuillet, a neurologist at Mediterranean University in Marseilles, said of the case:
“It’s hard for me to say exactly the percentage of reduction in the patient’s brain, since we did not use software to measure its volume. But visually, it is more than a 50 to 75% reduction.”
Tests showed his IQ as 84 which although below the average of 100 is considered within the normal range.
Feuillet and his colleagues described this unusual case in detail in an issue of The Lancet.
“It is so stunning a case of the brain’s ability to adapt”, says Dr Axel Cleeremans, a cognitive psychologist at the Université Libre in Brussels. He took a great interest in the case, which he stated was a challenge to the generally accepted theories of consciousness.
Neuroscientists have always asserted that an intact thalamus is essential for normal functioning. Damage to the thalamus can induce a coma. A team of cutting edge scientists managed to “switch off” the consciousness of an epileptic patient by stimulating the thalamus. Research has also shown that a person can lose consciousness if electrodes are used to manipulate the claustrum, a region of the brain which “talks” to the thalamus.
Clearly size doesn’t seem to matter to the brain as long as the remaining neurons can communicate with each other.
Maybe our politicians need to learn from these neurons when around the negotiating table…
“What I find amazing to this day is how the brain can deal with something which you think should not be compatible with life,” commented Max Muenke, who’s a paediatric brain defect specialist at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.
I can’t supply the patient’s name or picture as doctors have a duty to keep their Hippocratic Oath and thus that kind of medical stuff is confidential… next thing all your most embarrassing medical secrets would be splashed all over the Web…and you wouldn’t trust your favourite family GP anymore.
After they put a shunt in again his leg problem disappeared after a few weeks too… so he was now perfectly happy.
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