This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

14Jan/11

Total body transplant. ‘Nuff said.

Maybe it's just me, but as a neuroscientist, the idea of brain transplants is both terrifying and awesome at the same time.  There's something quite unsettling about thinking of a head that is separated from its body, yet still in function, but that also doesn't mean that's impossible.   This is an interview of one Dr. White (who unfortunately passed away recently), a neurosurgeon for many years, and one of the only people to carry out one of the more controversial and complicated procedures I have ever heard of: the total body transplant.

Now, before you get all riled up about the ethical implications of this, a few notes.  One, we're not talking about human beings (yet), but rather monkeys and other kinds of animals (which, depending on your disposition to animal cruelty, still leaves this in moral peril).  Two, these experiments were carried out decades ago, and as far as I know they don't go on presently.

So what exactly is going on here?  Well, essentially Dr. White wanted to take the organ transplant to another level.  We already have medical procedures that can replace one person's heart, lungs, kidneys, etc. with artificial or transplanted replacements, but what about the whole shebang?  What about the entire human body?

As with most procedures this invasive and risky, Dr. White started performing the operation on non-human primates and other animals.  The operation involves effectively removing the entire head from it's original body, cutting off the head of another animal (of the same species, although Mars Attacks! may disagree), and then reassembling the head onto its new body.

This is particularly tricky to pull off because of the delicacy of many essential components of the nervous system.  Surgeons had to be extremely careful not to damage any of the cranial nerves as well as any tissue that was exposed.  However, when all was said and done, they managed to place a monkey's head on a new body, and watch as the monkey successfully carried out various simple functions with its new machinery.  Spooky.

Now, you might be asking "why the hell would anybody want to do something like this (insert your curse on mankind for the abomination it has created here)."  Well, in truth, there are all kinds of situations where one might benefit from a new body, perhaps the most obvious of which is with tetraplegics.

Imagine being in a horrendous accident in which you lose all function of your body from the neck down.  You can still think just as before, but now you have lost almost all ability to carry out your everyday life.  In a world in which total body transplant is a viable option, gaining mobility again might be entirely possible, provided that you had a body to work with, and here's the tricky part.  Technically, the procedure needs two people to work.  One head, and one body.  Where might this second body come from, you might ask?  Well, that's a question I'll leave to the philosophers and politicians, but one possibility is from people who are clinically "brain dead," or who have perfectly functioning bodies, but nobody upstairs to direct them.

Anyways, I've said too much, so I'll just let the video do the rest of the talking.  Whether you think this is morally acceptable or not, it's still an amazing feat of biological engineering and surgical precision.  It sends chills up my spine, I just can't tell if they're the good kind or the bad kind.

via VBS.tv

9Nov/10

What’s it like to slowly lose the ability to speak? A first-person account.

This is an absolutely amazing piece of writing by Tom Lubbock, a long-time journalist and author.  It begins just as he has received some terrible news: he's got a brain tumor, and only has a year or two to live.  Moreover, the tumor is located near a region of his brain that is dedicated to speech production and comprehension (my guess is either Broca's Area or Wernicke's Area ).

True to his nature, Tom decides to keep a journal detailing his experiences during this troubling time.  He touches on thoughts about his own mortality, his relationship with the people around him, and how these relationships change as he slowly loses the ability to communicate.

I'm blown away by how much humanity comes through in this short piece of writing, and I urge you all to check it out.  Maybe we can all take a more appreciative look at our own mental faculties after having seen this man's experience.

via The Guardian

29Oct/10

Rotationplasty is incredibly cool and slightly terrifying

I hadn't heard of this procedure until about fifteen minutes ago, and I can honestly say that I have spent the last fifteen minutes having my mind blown thinking about this procedure.

It comes from an informational series with the Mayo Clinic which describes various medical procedures, their effects on the individual, and what life is like after undergoing them.  This particular video covers rotationplasty, a thoroughly amazing operation that I'm still trying to wrap my mind around.

Basically, a rotationplasty is carried out by removing the middle part of somebody's limb, then taking the end piece, rotating it 180 degrees, and reattaching it to the body.  In the example, the limb is a leg, so they end up removing the knee and affixing the person's rotated foot to their thigh.  As a result, the individual can now use their foot as a knee...pretty amazing huh?

It's kind of difficult to conceptualize without the video, so I'll defer further explanation to youtube.  This has to be one of the coolest medical procedures I've heard of.

via YouTube

27Oct/10

The phrase “ear worm” may have a very different meaning soon…

So this is a pretty short article, but I couldn't help myself from talking about it.  If you read regularly, you'll know this is because it contains two of my favorite things: lasers and brains (it's actually about brain tumors, which are certainly not one of my favorite things, but pretty amazing nonetheless).

Washington University continues to impress in the world of neurotechnology with a new method for treating inoperable brain tumors.  The need for this basically stems from the fact that, while some tumors exist near the surface of the head and are easy to remove without damaging too many important parts, others exist deep within the brain and aren't touchable without causing  massive damage and causing people to start tasting blue or something like that.

So, how do you get rid of a tumor without physically taking it out of the brain?  Well, the method devised by this team involved using the radiation from a laser to kill the cancerous cells.  This is an understandably delicate process, since it's often difficult to aim for bad cells without taking out some of the good ones, but this method attempts to deal with this problem by placing the laser as close to the tumor as possible.

How does it work?

Graphic rendition of the procedure

Basically, the doctor drills a small hole in the patient's skull (typically about the width of a pencil).  They then use MRI, a technology that allows us to look at the structure of a patient's brain, to locate exactly where the tumor is and snake a tiny laser probe through the hole and into the heart of the tumor.

Once safely nestled in its cancerous cocoon, the doctors activate the laser, which emits a blast of radiation that is just strong enough to kill its immediate surroundings, sparing the healthy tissue nearby.

This sounds incredibly dangerous, but in fact it could be a very useful technique in dealing with an otherwise medical condition.  While we know that the brain is a very delicate organ, it is also very robust, and techniques such as this one allow us to choose our path through the brain and avoid the areas that would do the most damage to the patient.

This technology isn't out in the market yet, but hopefully it'll make it through the refining and approval process soon.  Coming soon to an O.R. near you!

via PhysOrg

28Sep/10

The crazy story of Einstein’s crazy brain

I just ran across this old article from NPR News covering a harrowing tale of treachery, thievery, and brain-researchery: the quest to study Einstein's brain after he passed away in Princeton, NJ.

I don't want to ruin the story, but apparently one Thomas Harvey, the man who surgically removed Einstein's skull posthumously, decided that he'd like to do a bit more with the genius' brain than donate it to a gravesite somewhere - he made off with it!

Harvey insisted that such a brain needed to be studied and examined using the most cutting-edge scientific techniques and minds.  In order to ensure this, he made his way across the country, secretly concealing the great thinker's brain, and sending bits and pieces to researchers who caught wind of his efforts.

Ultimately, they weren't able to say exactly why Einstein was able to do such remarkable things with his brain, but it did give us an important insight into the role of Glia, a second type of cell found in the human brain (as opposed to neurons).

Anyways, you can read the rest.  It's a really interesting story...you never know what us scientists will do in the name of research and enlightenment!

via NPR News