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The strange question of a prestigious science magazine: Is your brain really necessary?

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Kuldeep Singh
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Can you live without a brain? Strange as it may seem, the answer is “yes.” The prestigious journal Science published an article on this subject, titled “Is your brain really necessary?”

The publication addresses the finding of Dr John Lorber, a British neurologist who worked at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, in addition to having been a professor of pediatrics at the University of Sheffield. During his career, he specialized in work on spina bifida.

More than 30 years ago, Lorber – who died in 1996 – received a visit from a mathematics student from that university. The young man, a bright student with a high IQ of 126, complained of a minor headache.

Upon receiving it, the doctor noticed that the student’s head was a little larger than usual, In order to determine the reason for this condition, he decided to perform a brain scan. When he got the results, he got a big surprise: the boy had practically no brain.

“When we did a brain scan, we saw that instead of the normal 4.5-centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was only a thin layer of a millimeter or so. His skull was filled primarily with cerebrospinal fluid,” Lorber said during a pediatric conference.

The student in question suffered from a disease called hydrocephalus in which “the cerebrospinal fluid does not travel through the brain but inhabits the cranial cavity.” What is striking – and surprising – in this case, is that the lack of brain mass did not represent a loss of movement for the young man, nor that of sensory processes, nor that of memory or other cognitive functions.

Patrick Wall, professor of anatomy at University College London, noted that “dozens of similar accounts fill the medical literature, and they go back a long way.” However, he clarified that what is important about Lorber’s study “is that it has made a long series of systematic explorations, rather than limiting itself to anecdotes.” “You’ve put together a remarkable set of data and you challenge, ‘How do we explain it?’

“How can someone with a very reduced brain mantle not only move among their peers without an apparent social deficit but also achieve high academic performance?; How is it that in some hydrocephalic whose brains are severely asymmetrically distorted, the expected unilateral paralysis is typically absent?; And how can the apparent restoration of normality of a hydrocephalic brain after a bypass operation be interpreted?” The British neurologist asked his colleagues.

One of the theories Lorber put forward is that “the brain has a great redundancy in functions and a small amount of brain matter can learn to represent the missing hemispheres.”

For its part, Science noted that “Lorber came to make his observations on hydrocephalus through his participation in the evaluation and treatment of spina bifida, a congenital condition in which the spinal column does not fuse completely, leaving them dangerously exposed nervous tissue.” He also recalled that “the vast majority of patients with spina bifida also suffer from hydrocephalus.”

Although the origin of hydrocephalus is not totally clear, what is known is that it is associated with a disturbance of the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid through a system of channels and reservoirs, or ventricles, in the brain. The prestigious magazine explains that “a back pressure develops, and this can cause the ventricles to swell many times their normal size, thus pressing the overlapping brain tissue against the skull.” In the case of young children, whose skulls are still malleable, a consequence can be an increase in the size of the head. “This physical attack from the inside leads to a real loss of brain matter. Therefore, it is not surprising that many hydrocephalic suffer from intellectual and physical disabilities.

In the first months of a person’s life, hydrocephalus is usually fatal. And if they survive, that person usually suffers from disabilities. But the young student, not only lived a normal life but also graduated with honors in Mathematics.

In addition to this case, Lorber, who systematically studied hydrocephalus, documented more than 600 scans of people with the condition. He divided these into four groups: people with almost normal brains; those with between 50 and 70% of the skull filled with fluid; those with 70 to 90% of the skull filled with fluid; those with 95% of the skull filled with fluid. The latter, the most severe of all, accounted for less than 10% of the study. Half of these people had a profound mental disability, while the other half had an IQ greater than 100.

Roger Lewin, the author of the article published by Science on December 12, 1980, discussed Lorber’s work, as some skeptics claimed that the neurologist misinterpreted the scans.Others argued that it had not exactly quantified the amount of missing brain tissue. On this, he responded by appealing to the case of the young mathematics student: 

“I cannot say if he had a brain that weighed 50 grams or 150 grams, but it is clear that it is far from the normal 1.5 kg and much of the brain that he has is finds in the most primitive deep structures that they are relatively safe from hydrocephalus”.

“There must be an enormous amount of free capacity in the brain, as well as in the liver and kidney … The cerebral cortex of the brain is probably responsible for much less than most people imagine,” he concluded.

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