EG is a woman in her fifties who grew up in Connecticut, and wants to be identified by her initials only. She has a graduate degree, has enjoyed an impressive career, and speaks Russian as a second language so well that she's dreamed in it. Almost 35 years ago, EG had a brain scan performed at George Washington University Hospital in D.C. That's when she learned her brain was "atypical". For years she didn't tell anyone but her parents and her two closest friends, because, as she said, it "creeped me out."

In 1987, EG learned that she was missing her entire left temporal lobe, a part of the brain thought to be involved in language processing. The cause was likely the result of a stroke when she was a baby. Today there is only cerebro-spinal fluid in the brain area. Over the years, doctors repeatedly told EG that her brain didn’t make sense: one doctor told her she should be having seizures; another said she shouldn’t have a good vocabulary -- and, she says, "he was annoyed that I did." (MIT tested her and found she was in the 98th percentile for vocabulary.) EG says she was "pissed off" by many frustrating experiences. "[Various doctors] made so many pronouncements and conclusions without any investigation whatsoever," she recalls.

Fortunately, EG found Evelina Fedorenko, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT who studies language. Fedorenko recognized that EG’s case could be a golden opportunity for understanding how her remaining brain tissue reorganized cognitive tasks. If an abnormality develops in childhood, when neuroplasticity is stronger, another part of the brain will usually make up for the function of the missing part by forming new neural connections that take up the task. How little effect the structure of EG’s brain has on her day-to-day life shows how expendable big chunks of our brains can be. Fedorenko thinks the opportunity to study a brain like EG’s is a scientist’s dream, and together with EG's willingness to help, it's been a very fruitful relationship. The first paper based on EG’s brain was recently published in the journal Neuropsychologia, and Fedorenko’s team expects to publish several more.

Source: [Wired - edited Daily Punt]


NL #19