Where are you?
- Where are you?
Thursday October 2, 2003
"There's a young student at this university," neurologist Professor John Lorber
of Sheffield University told Science magazine in December 1980, "who has
an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honours degree in mathematics, and is
socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain."
A scan revealed that the student had only 1mm of brain tissue lining the inside
of his skull - fluid filled the area where the rest of his brain should have
been. His was an extreme case of hydrocephalus, or "water on the brain",
whereby cerebrospinal fluid fills the brain instead of circulating around it.
Most sufferers can lead normal lives if regularly treated.
But if he had no brain, where was his mind?
Similar questions are raised by cases of "transplant memories". In 1988, Claire
Sylvia received a heart and double-lung transplant. After the operation, she
underwent some apparent personality changes: she began to have unusual (for
her) cravings for beer, green peppers and chicken nuggets; she dreamed about
beautiful women and experienced homosexual urges. She also dreamed of meetings
with a young man called Tim.
Alarmed, Sylvia sought out her donor's family and discovered that her new
organs had belonged to an 18-year-old boy, called Tim. Tim had a penchant for
the same foods she was craving - he was eating chicken nuggets when he died -
and Sylvia felt he was the boy in her dreams.
In the 19th century, German anatomist Leopold Auerbach observed a complex
network of nerve cells in the human digestive tract. This nerve bundle, a
"second brain" containing more nerve cells than the spinal cord, was recently
rediscovered by Michael Gershon at Columbia University. Professor Wolfgang
Prinz in Munich has also studied this, and thinks it could govern some of our
emotional and physical responses to thoughts and events - hence, perhaps, "gut
Georgetown University's Dr Candace Pert has suggested that neuropeptides are
linked to our sense of self. These chemicals, found in all our major organs and
muscles, enable communication between the mind and body. Pert's theory is that
they also carry our emotions and our memories. Is consciousness diffused
throughout the body with them?
- Hi Karl - I wrote about the Lorber story in my column for the Lancet
Neurology last year. Lorber was not entirely an innocent in this one it
would seem. See below:
It is a "fact" popular with creativity gurus, creationists and consciousness
theorists that we use only the tiniest fraction of our brains. For
creativity gurus, the implication is we need to start employing the other 90
percent. For creationists and consciousness theorists, it means we can't
even be so sure that the brain has much to do with the experience of being a
Of course, it is well known that this particular neurological myth arose
with Karl Lashley's ablation experiments in the 1920s, where he chopped away
at a rat's cortex to erase the ability to run mazes. Then Wilder Penfield
and his probing electrode found large areas of "silent" cortex in epilepsy
patients. Einstein even jokingly declared these untapped regions of the
brain to be the secret of his success. But when anti-abortionists argue
before Parliamentary committees about foetal sentience, or psychologists
rail against research linking IQ to brain volume, it is the research of
Sheffield University spina bifida specialist, John Lorber, that still really
gets them going.
In the 1970s, Lorber - part of a world-leading spinal surgery team at
Sheffield Children's Hospital, which included Robert Zachary and John
Sharrard - began CT scanning of patients referred with minor signs of
hydrocephalus. Lorber was shocked at how many looked to have "wall to wall"
ventricles, leaving barely any visible cortex.
The most celebrated case was that of a 26-year-old student at the University
with an IQ of 126, a first-class honours degree in mathematics, and
"socially completely normal". This was despite a cortical mantle apparently
squished to paper thinness, the usual four or five centimetres reduced to a
bare millimetre or so. Lorber estimated that the man's whole brain weighed
only about 100 grams. And hardly any of this was higher brain deemed so
essential for proper intellectual functioning. Little wonder that Lorber was
moved to ask "Is your brain really necessary?" when talking up his findings
at medical conferences. Or that the august journal Science headlined with
the very same question when it picked up on his claims and turned them into
part of popular folklore (Science 1980; 210:1232-4).
Just think about it. Lorber was saying he saw nothing but a skim of cortical
tissue. So what is that great weight of white matter doing in normal brains?
Is all the complex cortical structure we see somehow very misleading about
how the brain operates?
Well, after having had this particular factoid thrown at me in a number of
debates about brain size and what it tells about human evolution, I thought
it was about time to get to the bottom of it. Was there any truth to
Lorber (who died in 1996) certainly stuck to his story, telling the Nursing
Mirror in 1981 that in 500 CT scans he had found many hydrocephalics with
"hardly any brain left above the level of the tentorium" and yet working as
senior nurses, university graduates and members of executive councils. Nor
did there seem to be loud public rebuttals from his colleagues, either at
the time or subsequently with the advent of better neuroimaging technology.
However talking to some of Lorber's contemporaries reveals that he probably
was wildly exaggerating the extent of brain loss in his cases. "If the
cortical mantle actually had been compressed to a couple of millimetres, it
wouldn't even have shown up on his CT," scoffed one. Another agreed, saying
modern scans show stretching, but not much real loss of brain weight with
slow-onset hydrocephalus (where the brain has time to adjust): "The cortex
and its connections are still there, even if grossly distorted."
Colleagues further confide that Lorber was a known controversialist, already
notorious for his attacks on surgeons whom he felt were too quick with the
knife when treating severe cases of spina bifida. "You're torturing the
children!", he would explode at meetings. So no one took his obviously
extreme comments about healthy hydrocephalics with "virtually no brain" too
seriously, even if they were being written up in Science.
In hindsight, it would have been nice if someone had actually put paid to
the myth by taking Lorber's famous maths student and doing a more definitive
MRI scan. But even then, people would probably still believe what they want
to believe about the relationship between mind and brain. Facts don't often
get in the way of opinion in that particular arena of higher intellectual
from John McCrone
check out my consciousness web site
neuroscience, human evolution, Libet's half second, Vygotsky and more...
- Readers of the list may be interested to learn that the question of
weather or not the mind is or is in the brain and the relevance of
severe hydrocephalus was hotly debated in the controversies over
phrenology in the early 19th century. Anti-phrenologists claimed that
because there was no visible brain in the heads of dissected
hydrocephali - and yet during life normal behaviour was observed- that
the brain was irrelevant for the mind. The phrenologists, on the other
hand, beginning with F.J. Gall maintained that the brain was NOT absent
in these cases but that it was in fact the "fibres" of the brain had
become separated and "unfolded" under the pressure of the trapped
cerebro spinal fluid. Remember this was long before neurones were
Dr John van Wyhe
Research Fellow, Open University
Dept. of History & Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University
Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH, UK
The writings of Charles Darwin on the web