Living Without a Brain

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Issue 14, Volume 112

By Jovanna Wu 

A 44-year-old man in France decided to pay a visit to the doctor’s office after waking up with a sudden cramp on his left leg in 2007. What started off as a trip to inquire about a leg cramp soon took a drastic turn when doctors took his medical history and learned that he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, the buildup of fluids in the brain cavity, at birth. CT scans of his brain revealed that his brain was made up of 90 percent cerebrospinal fluids, leading to the unanimous shock of the doctors. His ability to bypass the low survival rates of hydrocephalus and lead a normal life resulted in the discovery of the human mind’s flexibility, thus revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain.

The brain has long been seen as arguably the most significant organ in the human body. Therefore, as one can imagine, if the brain were to suffer from any neurological damage or disease, then the life of the human would be severely impacted. Hydrocephalus contributes to the enlargement of the brain’s ventricles and thus, places excessive pressure on the brain. This pressure damages the brain’s tissues as well as different vital areas, which leads to the malfunction of the brain. Though this disease can occur at any age, it is far more commonly diagnosed in infants. Some of its more obvious symptoms include the enlargement of the newborn’s head, a bulging soft spot at the top of its head, and, most commonly, seizures. The symptoms emerge from a possible obstruction of development of the newborn’s central nervous systems during pregnancy and the inflammation of their brain tissues. Furthermore, this condition tends to cause learning disabilities in developing youth as well as premature death, with 80 percent of patients passing away before reaching adulthood.

The aforementioned French man was miraculously tested to have an IQ of 75. Though this number is well below the present-day global average of 100, this did not place the man in the mentally disabled spectrum which constitutes a score below 70. In fact, he was able to get his hydrocephalus temporarily treated with a shunt, a hollow tube, inserted into his head to drain the excess fluids from the brain and redirect them to another place in the body. However, the shunt was removed when the man turned 14. When researchers checked back on his condition years later, they found that his entire brain visibly shrunk by an estimated 50 to 75 percent and was replaced with fluids.

Because this medical case was unprecedented at the time, multiple theories emerged regarding the man’s ability to survive with such a small portion of his brain remaining. One theory discussed how human consciousness is linked to the claustrum, thin sheets of neurons that go in between the major parts of the brain. However, this is highly unlikely, as humans cannot consciously function on solely one part of the brain. Currently, the most widely accepted theory is the Radical Plasticity Theory, which suggests that the brain is extremely adaptable and can withstand high levels of damage as long as they are unlethal. The organ's adaptive nature allows it to relearn human consciousness. Cases such as this one bring to light how people tend to underestimate the power of the human brain and its ability to run on limited amounts of neurons.

As of recently, the man’s status is unknown, but records indicate promising results of him living a normal and healthy life. His case demonstrates that the brain is much more resilient than scientists previously thought. Exploring its ability to endure severe impairments paves a new path for the treatment of neurological disorders. Though there remain many limitations in this area of research, these discoveries may enable scientists and medical field professionals to develop treatments and cures for neurological diseases in the near future.