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Mind-blowing Brain Cases: The Woman With Half A Brain

Mind-blowing Brain Cases: The Woman With Half A Brain

This time in Mind-blowing Brain Cases: The Dizzy Mother

The human brain has been described as ‘the most complex thing we have yet discovered in the universe’. In this series neuroscientist Elisabeth Buhl Thubron takes a closer look at intriguing brain cases that revolutionised the field. Some led to new theories, others to popular brain myths or even more confusion. 

Part 3: The woman with half a brain

Name: N/A (anonymous case study)
Age at discovery: 24 years old
Nationality: Chinese
Location: Shandong Province, China

Imagine you are riding a bike. The pedals keep you moving, the handlebars control your direction, and the brakes slow you down. Each bike part serves a unique, specific function. If the brakes on your bike stop working, one of your remaining bike parts won’t magically take over the brakes’ role. Fixing or replacing the brakes is the only option. Does the human brain also work like this?

Your adaptable, plastic brain

This is one of those ‘forget everything they taught you at school’ moments. Contrary to past beliefs, the human brain does not follow this ‘one function per part’ rule. If one brain region is damaged, it does not necessarily mean your brain has lost the ability to carry out that region’s job. There’s a buzzword for this phenomenon and it is also one of my favourites: “neuroplasticity”. I mentioned this in my previous article on Phineas Gage, the man with a hole in his head. It means that your brain is like plasticine, especially up until adolescence; it is able to lose and grow new brain cells as a response to negative and positive psychological experiences, respectively, and it can also recover from physical damage.

Half full, half empty?

Like many of us, a 24-year old Chinese woman led a normal, uneventful childhood and adolescence. She is now married and mother to a daughter. As a late walker and talker, her parents thought she was merely a late developer. They did not raise an eyebrow when her movements became somewhat uncoordinated and her mental abilities mildly impaired, as she was still able to do most things. Last year, however, she was admitted into hospital complaining of dizziness and nausea. CT, MRI and DTI scans revealed an entire brain region was missing: the cerebellum!

Your cerebellum, which means “little brain” in Latin, is found at the base of your brain, where the spinal cord and brain meet. It only makes up 10% of your total brain weight but it contains half of all your brain cells. The main job of the cerebellum is to coordinate your movements, control balance and regulate important cognitive functions such as speech. Scientists believe it is involved in many other functions, but the specifications are still unclear. Nevertheless, surely missing half of your brain should not be compatible with life?

Making up for lost functions

There have only been 9 reported cases of cerebellar agenesis, and most were discovered after premature death. These predominantly included children with severe mental impairments and epilepsy. The leading scientist, Feng Yu, and his colleagues from the Department of Neurosurgery in Shandong Province’s Chinese PLA General Hospital of Jinan Military Area Command wrote that the mild symptoms experienced by the young woman, far less than expected, supports the concept that compensatory neuroplasticity in a neighboring region took place early in her development. It is similar to the principle behind blindness leading to heightened hearing.

Few adult cases of cerebellar agenesis have been studied, with details also lacking, so this new case will provide scientists and clinicians the opportunity to study the cerebellum and neuroplasticity in greater depth. This is yet another example of how little we know about the brain, and how individual mind-blowing case studies like this one can over-turn long-held scientific beliefs. The further we search, the more mesmerizing the brain becomes!

Your brain is able to adapt, for better or worse, so take care of it, and it will take care of you. And that’s a no-brainer.

Reference
Yu, F., Jiang, Q., Sun, X., & Zhang, R. (2014). A new case of complete primary cerebellar agenesis: clinical and imaging findings in a living patient Brain DOI: 10.1093/brain/awu239

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4 Comments

  • S. Fernandez
    May 3, 2015, 05:30

    I know they are just now studying this young woman, but they stated that she is living a normal life. They brought up the fact that she had motor skill issues, but has she had any other issues related to the cerebellum. Does she still exhibit language problems? Or does she find there to be any issues with her raising a child? I am not saying she isn’t capable, but I wonder how her attention skills are in the context of teaching her daughter? There could be a lot of things that can be observed with her in relation to what we think the cerebellum affects. It could help us understand if the brain does try and connect the dots elsewhere if there is a problem with another area.

    REPLY
    • mm
      Elisabeth Buhl Thubron@S. Fernandez
      May 9, 2015, 16:26

      S Fernandez and Katelyn H., those are some very good questions!

      Since the cerebellum also has non-motor functions such as speech and mental development, this woman’s speech also affected; her speech was not intelligible until the age of 6 and today she still shows signs of mild cerebellar dysarthria (slurring of words). Whether these problems, including her uncoordinated walk and inability to run/jump, impinge on her child’s upbringing and care is not mentioned but I assume it doesn’t make things easy. Nonetheless her higher order mental abilities such as attention (as you mentioned Fernandez) are intact so I don’t think that would pose a problem.
      Katelyn, she only suffered from the nausea for a month before being admitted to hospital, but she has experienced dizzy spells for years apparently – this certainly has a role in her uncoordinated walk.

      There are still many questions relating to the role and importance of the cerebellum and this case has raised even more.. how is it possible for someone to live without a cerebellum?
      The scientists and clinicians will be following her development so we will certainly be hearing more about her as she ages!

      REPLY
  • Katelyn H
    May 5, 2015, 04:35

    I am very curious as to what, if any, deficits she exhibits as an adult. The post stated that she was thought to be a “late bloomer” due to some developmental delays as a child, but have these lasted as an adult? Also, does she persistently deal with symptoms such as dizziness and nausea due to the absence of this crucial part of the brain? It is amazing to see how someone can be so functional with such a large part of the brain missing. While the parts of the brain function together in order to allow someone to operate at a “normal” level, there is a significant amount of overlap in the jobs of each part. This goes to show us that if we are lacking in one area of the brain, that the others will help to overcome the deficit. I find this quite fascinating and cannot wait to hear more about this woman.

    REPLY
    • mm
      Elisabeth Buhl Thubron@Katelyn H
      May 9, 2015, 16:26

      S Fernandez and Katelyn H., those are some very good questions!

      Since the cerebellum also has non-motor functions such as speech and mental development, this woman’s speech also affected; her speech was not intelligible until the age of 6 and today she still shows signs of mild cerebellar dysarthria (slurring of words). Whether these problems, including her uncoordinated walk and inability to run/jump, impinge on her child’s upbringing and care is not mentioned but I assume it doesn’t make things easy. Nonetheless her higher order mental abilities such as attention (as you mentioned Fernandez) are intact so I don’t think that would pose a problem.
      Katelyn, she only suffered from the nausea for a month before being admitted to hospital, but she has experienced dizzy spells for years apparently – this certainly has a role in her uncoordinated walk.

      There are still many questions relating to the role and importance of the cerebellum and this case has raised even more.. how is it possible for someone to live without a cerebellum?
      The scientists and clinicians will be following her development so we will certainly be hearing more about her as she ages!

      REPLY