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What neuroscience can learn from brain injured patients

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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 lighting up.

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 perfectly.

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 speech back.

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

This article was orignally produced by ABC - All In The Mind.

 

To view the rest of the article, visit the ABC - All In The Mind website  http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/5073934

 

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