Woman With Half a Brain and neuroplasticity
This is an astonishing story that provides strong evidence of the extraordinary plasticity of our brain, which Professor Bartel discussed in class a week ago. It is about a woman who was born with only half a brain. While her parents knew right after Michelle’s birth, that something was wrong, remarkably they did not turn to the doctors until she was about 27 years old. Her mother explains that since Michelle did not have cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome, they practically had no place to turn. As a result, her childhood and young adult years were incredibly hard. However, she was able to graduate from high school (!), she can speak normally, and she can write and read. Moreover, as the author observes she has an “uncanny knack for dates”. In other words, she can figure out any date in the past or in the future. She demonstrates her ability in the video. Today, she is 37. She works, pay rent and can perform most household tasks.
About ten years ago, the family finally referred to Dr. Grafman, at the Cognitive Neuroscience Section of the National Institutes of Health. He conducted an MRI scan, which determined that Michelle was missing almost all the left side of her brain. The doctors explain that it was most likely lost during a pre-birth stroke. They provide the scan and it looks horrifying! There is virtually nothing there, just a massive black spot on the left. The doctor observes that, while some of the deep structures remain, the cortex is 95 percent gone and the important structures that control movement, behaviour, cognition are missing.
In the video, it is evident that she has some troubles. However, amazingly, she can understand people; she is able to find right words, while speaking; she can construct correct sentences; in short, she is capable of fully expressing herself. The doctor explains that her brain has rewired itself. The right half of her brain took over some of the vital functions that are normally done by the left, such as speaking or reading. However, while the right hemisphere took part t in the development of the language abilities, some of the other skills, for the normal functioning of which the right side is responsible, were lost. For example, Michelle struggles with abstract concepts and might get lost in new surroundings. She has difficulty controlling her emotions. In the video, she herself explicates quite correctly and logically the reasons why she tends to throw fits, temper tantrums. She says the doctor helped her to understand that it happened “because I was missing half my brain”. Obviously, Dr. Grafman keeps on seeing Michelle quite often. He observes that even during these 10 years since her first diagnosis some of her intellectual functions have improved! She will need assistance for the rest of her life, but she is not completely helpless.
Interestingly, although the author observes that Michelle’s story “has turned medical thinking upside down”, the idea that the brain activity associated with a certain function can move to a different location is not new. Actually, it was first proposed as early as in 1892 by a Spanish neuroscientist and physician Santiago Cajal, who once said “Every man if he so desires can become the sculptor of his own brain”. While some scientists believe that his theory of neuronal plasticity is rather ambiguous (F. Stahnisch and R. Nitsch, Trends in Neuroscience, 2002, 25/11), the majority maintains that Cajal’s pioneering work has laid a solid foundation for a modern concept of neuroplasticity.
I think this is an extraordinary story, anyway, and in this regard, it would be interesting to discuss the potential of brain fitness. If the right half of this woman’s brain was able to rewire, reorganize itself and the neurons were able to form new connections, allowing her to regain her ability to speak and read, who knows what a “normal” brain is capable of?