Report on Psychology Group Meeting - Meeting, Friday, 17 March 2017

As some members were away our numbers this time were small but we all agreed that our meeting made up for this in interest, enthusiasm and level of participation. Our topic this time harked back to David Eagleman’s programme on the concepts of plasticity and specificity of areas of the brain and how these relate to issues of permanent disability or recovery from brain damage. What we saw in the video programme we watched about a young child afflicted with spina bifida and severe hydrocephaly, however, raised these issues in a particularly poignant and what the doctors involved described as an astonishing way. It should be said at this point that we were very grateful to Christine who, as a career midwife, was able to begin the meeting by giving us a professional introduction to this area of medicine and the benefit of her extensive clinical experience.

After Christine’s introduction we watched a video programme entitled, “The Boy Who Grew A New Brain”. This told the story so far of Noah and his family, a boy who from the day of his mother’s 20 week pre-natal ultra-sound scan was shown to be severely afflicted with hydrocephaly and also spina bifida. The former, also known as “water on the brain”, is the result of a blockage in the fluid drainage system of the brain which results in back pressure that causes the brain to be crushed against the skull and the head to swell to sometimes enormous proportions and causing death or severe mental retardation. The latter term describes the failure of the spine column to close over the spinal canal leaving the spinal cord exposed and often results in paralysis of the lower limbs. Noah’s parents were offered the choice of a termination but refused this and he was born by Caesarean section as soon as this was possible.

The MRI scan taken of Noah’s brain done at his birth proved to be truly shocking to the experienced doctors who saw it. The child had only 2% of what should have been his brain the only part showing on the scan was his brain stem, keeping him alive and breathing, the rest of his cranium showed only a sack of fluid with a very thin layer crushed against his skull. According to the principles of brain specificity Noah’s prognosis was assumed to be very bad but a neurosurgeon operated the following day to insert a shunt in his skull to gradually relieve the pressure on what was left of his brain. She also operated to cover the bulging spinal cord at his lower back, but paralysis was inevitable.

Although the future prospects for Noah seemed really hopeless his parents committed themselves to giving him as much physical and intellectual stimulation as possible in the hope of improving his condition. At 1 year old Noah had amazed doctors by achieving the milestone of learning to speak and the MRI scan they then did left them utterly astonished as the fluid they had drained off had been replaced by a fully functioning, growing brain. Noah’s 2% of brain had been replaced by a brain about 80% of normal size; he had in effect grown a new brain! At 4 years of age Noah is almost completely normal for his age and doctors are very confident that he will soon fully catch up to peers. How he has achieved this, however, is still a mystery and doctors, at the moment, can only put this down, at least in part, to the amazing plasticity if the infant brain.

We will meet again at the usual time and place on the 21st April I’d be grateful if any members who’ve seen any media articles they’ve found of interest would bring them along to share with us. This also applies of course to any TV programs, in mp4 format please, and any relevant videos they’ve managed to download. These can be brought in easily on a laptop and even more easily on a USB stick if you’d prefer. If you do have anything to show, as an aid to planning, it would help if you could let me know by email.

I look forward to seeing you in April.

John Moore – Group Leader
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