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Secerts of the Mind

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Dr. Ramachandran's video, “Secrets of the Mind”.                         By: Debbie Montoya

     The most complex matter in the universe, is how Dr. Ramachandran sees the brain.  In this video we gain insights through tragedies that have affected others. One of the ultimate challenges in science is understanding the human brain.  In the past science dismissed these bizarre cases but one neuroscientist today sets out to track these cases down with the dogged persistence of a detective.  Dr. Ramachandran states “what excites me is I can go in there and pretend I’m Sherlock Holmes and try and figure out what has gone wrong in patient’s brain, what has changed that accounts for the strange symptoms.  Dr. Ramachandran is revolutionizing our understanding of how the brain works. His efforts to solve some of the most baffling neurological mysteries, it takes him from the hospital bed to the outer limits of brain science.

     Ramachandran began his investigations with a strange phenomenon called "phantom limb syndrome." It's not uncommon for amputees to feel the vivid presence of a missing limb long after it has gone. “Phantom limb syndrome”- means feeling presence of limb after it’s gone, can also be in other parts of body, example woman feeling menstrual cramps after having hysterectomy.  One of Ramachandran's first patient was Derek Steen. Derek was involved in a motorcycle accident, he pulled nerves out  spinal cord and neck and lost his right arm.  How did Derek find Dr. Ramachandran? He found the Dr. in an ad in the paper.  In Derek’s case, when he would shave the left side of his cheek, he would feel a tingling pain in his phantom limb.  So Dr. Ramachandran tested Derek, he first ran a tip across his left side of face, Derek felt a sensation across his left side of face and in his phantom right hand.  Dr. Ramachandran concluded that the body is mapped out on the brain. This mapping occurs in our infancy, so in the case of an amputation in adulthood part of the brain is still designated to receive input from the specific part of the body. Derek’s brain is no longer receiving input from his missing limb, and the brain is “hungry” for this input, so its neighboring receptor, the one for the face that is still receiving input, has invaded the space allocated for the missing hand. Whenever Derek’s cheek is rubbed he feels the rub in both his cheek and in his phantom limb.  So how did Dr. Ramachandran prove his theory for brain mapping?  He asked and gave Derek a brain scan. The next case Dr. Ramachandran took on was James Peacock, who has suffered excruciating pain since he lost his hand six years ago. So what are the answers to treating pain in a body part that’s missing?    In James’s case, the pain in the phantom-limb was because the brain was stuck on sending out information to the phantom-limb causing it to clench.  With no input from the missing hand that it was clenching too tight James’s brain continued to send out the clenching signal causing James pain in the phantom-limb. Dr. Ramachandran was able to treat James with what is known as “The Mirror Box.” This box works by having James place both hands inside the box. One side of the box is a mirror, giving James the illusion of having both hands, and sending a signal through James’s visual cortex to unclench his missing hand. Dr. Ramachandran does believe that the “mirror box” needs to be evaluated with many patients before he can be sure it really works, but in James case it’s undeniable success in uncramping his phantom limb, suggests that even pain can be a construct of the mind. The phenomenon of phantom limbs reveals how our brains can delude us into being conscious of something that isn’t.

 The next case I was fascinated with was Peggy Palmer. Peggy Palmer ten years ago suffered a stroke in the parietal lobes of her brain. Now Peggy suffers from a condition called visual neglect. Although her eyesight is fine, half of her visual world no longer seems to matter.  The parietal lobes are concerned with mainly creating a three dimensional representation of the spatial layout of the world, allowing a person to walk around, to navigate, to avoid bumping into things. When the right parietal is damaged the patient is unable to deal with the left side of the world.  This condition has fascinated neurologist for more than a century, because it reveals not only how the brain shapes the way we perceive space in the present, it determines spatial look of our memories.  This became apparent when Dr. Ramachandran asked Peggy to draw a daisy from memory.  Peggy’s drawings reveals exactly what’s wrong.  It’s just like a radar system, where the actual system on left side is not working.  Peggy draws nice daisies with the left side missing.  Which means that she’s not only neglecting events in the world, but when she conjures up a mental image, she’s ignoring the left side of the mental image.  This shows that it’s not simply a sensory problem but a problem of consciousness.  Peggy’s one sided drawings reveal how damage to the visual centers can wrap our consciousness of the world and how complex the human visual system actually is.  Dr. Ramachandran reveals that there are thirty areas in the brain concerned with seeing.  Visual input as it comes in seems to divide into two parallel streams of processing, the how pathway, which is concerned mainly with navigation, being able to walk around, avoiding bumping into things, reaching out and grabbing something.  The how pathway leads from the main visual areas to the parietal lobes at the top of the brain, this is where Peggy suffered her stroke.  The other pathway is the what pathway, leads from the main visual areas to the temporal lobes located just behind our temples.  The what pathway is concerned with recognizing the object.  What am I looking at, what does it mean to me, is this edible, is it a flower, is it a person face?  That is the what pathway concerns, and that is the pathway damaged in next case. David two years ago was involved in a terrible car accident , there was a problem with car and David landed in the highway head first.  He lost his right arm but when he awoke from coma his mental capacities seemed to be intact.  He seemed fine except for one profound thing, when he looked at his mother, he would say, “this woman doctor she looks exactly like my mother, but she’s not my mother.”. David’s injury to the brain had brought on rare condition called the Capgras Delusion.  This condition has been known since the turn of the century, but has been treated as a curiosity.  When you look at an object the message goes to temporal lobes, but seeing is a multi level process.  Whenever we look at an object the message reaches the temporal lobes, where it is identify and then gets relayed to the amygdala which is the gateway to the limbic system.  So what happening with David is the message gets to the temporal lobe cortex, so patient recognizes his mother as being his mother and evokes the  appropriate memories, but message not getting to amygdala, because the fibers going from temporal to the amygdala are cut, as result of accident, so there is no emotions.  Dr. Ramachandran arranges to measure David’s galvanic skin response.  The condition seems to heal itself and David no longer thinks his mother is an imposter.  

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