It is no exaggeration to say that most progress in medicine has been achieved one unfortunate patient after another. Either by accident, or by misguided design, our understanding of human physiology and pathology have frequently come at the expense of the misfortune of countless patients, and it continues to do so. Whilst large trials teach us a lot about the characteristics of diseases, it is however the single case study that often reveals the most defining insights. For example, it was the accidental gunshot injury sustained by Alexis St Martin that led to our understanding that the gastric phase of digestion depends on the acid produced by the stomach. The gory injury resulted in a permanent fistula between St Martin’s stomach and his skin, a veritable window through which the army doctor, William Beaumont, peered to see nature at work.
But enough of other organs; our interest is of course the nervous system. Who then were the tragic heroes of neuroscience, the valiant who submitted their bodies in life, and their brains in death, for the advancement of science? Who are the famous, and the infamous, in the annals of the brain? Here is our run down of 7 remarkable patients who defined the history of neuroscience.
7. Patient SM
Patient SM is one of the lesser known figures in neuroscience, but her contribution to the science of emotions is immense. As someone who simply did not know what it was to experience fear, she provided the clues to the anatomical foundations of our passions. It turned out that the source of her fearlessness were lesions in her amygdala. It is little wonder that her life was characterised by risky ventures and perilous experiences, as she was incapable of detecting and avoiding danger. The amygdala is now established as the command and control centre for the emotions. One could argue, albeit unoriginally, that to lose one amygdala may be an accident, but to lose both will have to be termed a disaster. And in the case of Patient SM, her catastrophe is a result of Urbach–Wiethe disease, a disorder which destroys both amygdalas…but mercifully spares the hippocampus.
6. Anna ‘O’
Bertha Pappenheim, better known by her nickname ‘Anna O‘, was the seminal hysterical patient reported by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud. It is probably to her singular credit that the concept of hysteria became a neuroscience curiosity, even if this was on the fringes. Her constellation of symptoms will however be familiar to every neurologist: limb paralysis, speech difficulties, visual impairment, hallucinations, and episodes of loss of consciousness. It is clear that this disorder lives on, and after several iterations, now comes under the remit of functional neurological disorders (FND). It is interesting that Freud had the largely correct insight that behind many cases of hysteria lies some form of trauma.
5. Blanche Wittman
The great French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot is not a person to be outdone by other neuroscientists, and this applies to his one-time protege, Sigmund Freud. It is therefore not surprising that in studying hysteria, he outdid Freud by finding a more remarkable subject called Blanche Wittman. She became his star attraction in the demonstrations he held at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital where she performed for the great and the good of French neurology. It is in this way that she achieved abiding fame in the iconic painting of Pierre Aristide André Brouillet. Her dramatic hysterical attacks earned her the sobriquet ‘The Queen of Hysterics‘, but her contribution to the actual science of the brain is rather underwhelming. There is however no denying that she is a lasting landmark in the history neuroscience.
4. Auguste Deter
Whilst the name Alois Alzheimer has gone down in history for describing the fearsome dementia that bears his name, the name of the patient who made it all possible is not a household one at all. Auguste Deter was the first person to be diagnosed with the horrendous disease which still ravages mankind, and without any cure in sight. After studying her illness in life, Alzheimer had the fortune of examining her brain after her death. It is his detailed examination that revealed what we now know as the hallmarks of the disease, senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. It is remarkable that a recent analysis of Alzheimer’s preserved histopathological slides revealed that Auguste Deter carried the classical presenilin 1 (PSEN1) gene mutation that is associated with the disease. Can neuroscience ever be any more satisfying than that!
3. Louis Victor Leborgne
Yet another watershed neuroscience patient whose name doesn’t often ring any bells, or flow easily off the tongue. Leborgne’s misfortune was to develop a curious inability to speak, now recognised as expressive aphasia. He was only able to communicate with a single word, tan, and this explains his nickname, Patient Tan. Paul Broca’s fortune, on the other hand, was to study Leborgne in life, and to examine his brain after death. This singular patient made Broca a household name because this type of speech difficulty is also known as Broca’s aphasia. Broca also localised the lesion responsible for Leborgne’s aphasia, and it was in a part of the dominant hemisphere now known as Broca’s area. Two eponyms for the price of one you may say. Leborgne is also probably the turning point for the contentious concept of cerebral localisation, resurrecting it from the ashes of phrenology.
2. Phineas Gage
Phineas Gage is remarkable for achieving what few other neuroscience patient have, entry into popular folklore. The victim of a work-related accident, Gage sustained a unique form of brain injury when he was impaled by a tamping rod whilst trying to set explosions as part of his work as a rail construction worker. The explosion was accidentally set off prematurely, and the rod was propelled through Gage’s left cheek bone, through his left eye socket, and it then penetrated both frontal lobes. It was remarkable that Gage was not physically inconvenienced immediately following the accident, but surviving the whole affair was just the beginning of his real misfortune; his personality, previously calm and dedicated, became volatile and disinhibited. In relating the story of Gage, there is no getting away from a famous quotation; those who knew him before his accident pithily remarked that Gage ‘was no longer Gage‘. It is to his misfortune that we owe our understanding of the important role the frontal lobes play in regulating personality and behaviour.
1. Henry Molaison
Known only as Patient HM throughout his life, Henry Gustav Molaison is perhaps the most important patient to ever cross the path of neuroscience. He earned this distinction on account of the profound amnesia he developed after he underwent brain surgery to control his severe epilepsy. Very bravely, his neurosurgeon, William Beecher Scoville, removed large chunks of his temporal lobes on both sides, a previously unheard of procedure. His epilepsy became largely controlled, but the aftermath was a disaster; he lost the ability to form new memories. As it has become a familiar refrain by now, Henry’s misfortune became a boon for neuroscience. He became probably the most extensively studied patient in the history of brain science; he spent the rest of his life undergoing one neuropsychological test or the other until neuroscientists obtained a thorough understanding of the anatomical and functional foundations of memory formation. Whilst the key lesson from his case is the important role of the hippocampus in memory formation, there is so much more he contributed to brain science in life. And even after death, his brain is an object of fascination for neuroscientists; they opened up his skull as soon as he died, took out his brain, and cut it up into tiny slices for further study. Henry is therefore the ultimate neuroscience patient who keeps giving even after departing this mortal coil.
Over the next few weeks I will be reviewing three excellent books on Henry Molaison in my book review blog, The Doctors Bookshelf. Why not follow me there to find out more about the remarkable man.
Do you want to explore more interesting neuroscience patients?
Here are 9 to satisfy your urge!