What neuroscience can learn from brain injured patients
Neuroscience has seen several major
technological advancements in recent decades, but group and
individual case studies remain crucial to understanding brain
disorders. As neuropsycholgist Jenni Ogden says, it's each person's
individuality that makes them so valuable to science.
Every human brain is unique, just as everyone has two eyes, a nose
and mouth, but every face is individual. If a patient has a brain
injury, whether it is a head injury or a stroke or a tumour, it
doesn't matter how the brain injury happened, they will have a part
of the brain damaged that probably no one else has damaged in
exactly the same way.
From that, if they have unusual behaviours or symptoms,
neuroscientists can study those to show what that damaged piece of
brain used to be able to do.
Neuroscience is the biggest industry in science at the moment, and
so amazing new technologies are being developed all of the time.
Some years ago now functional MRI, for example, became the flavour
of the month or flavour of the year. We can see the brain in action
by doing a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan while a person is
awake and doing some very simple cognitive tasks. It's a simplistic
way of putting it, but we can see which bits of the brain are
There are many other technologies that are being developed along
those same sorts of lines, but nevertheless they are still pretty
simplistic when it comes to how the mind works. They are really
supporting what we have learned from this rather more mundane type
of study where we get a patient and we spend hours and hours
assessing them carefully.
By assessing a lot of different patients, we can build up a very
good picture of how the brain works or how the mind works, and
relate that to the brain damage. For example, one of my patients,
Luke, had Broca's aphasia that was affecting his language and
comprehension, but he could still sing his favourite blues song
Luke was a young man, a gang member, and he had been binge
drinking when he suddenly collapsed and his friends brought him
into hospital. He could only speak in brief staccato ways, but he
could comprehend reasonably well, and that's what expressive
aphasia is. The haematoma, the bleed, was in the left frontal part
of his brain, where Broca had discovered all those years ago that
it's involved in expressive language.
However, the right hemisphere we know is more involved in music,
tunes, melodies, and it was discovered, probably by accident, that
some of these people who can't speak normally, if they sing a song
they know, the words come along.
You are basically trying to do everything to help patients
rehabilitate, so it's very hard to work out what has been effective
and what hasn't, it's a whole mishmash of things, but I think the
melodic intonation therapy did seem to help Luke get some of his
It also helped him I think because it was fun. If you are
rehabilitating patients and they are constantly doing terribly
difficult things that really depresses them because they know they
used to be able to do these things before.
References and further information