Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage with the tamping rod that was driven through his head

Phineas Gage was an unfortunate man, but it's an ill wind that blows no good. His brain injury, sustained in 1848 when a tamping iron blew through his skull, left him alive but changed his personality.

Below is a digital reconstruction of his injury, showing what parts of his brain may have been affected by his accident. For more details on Gage and the reconstruction, check out this Guardian article by Mo Costandi. Even if it's not entirely accurate, it's still a beautiful graphic.

Phineas Gage’s Connectome
In 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage had a 3.5-foot, 13 pound tamping iron blown through the front of his skull in a construction accident. Hell of a way to start your Wednesday (yes, I checked). He survived.
The story of Phineas Gage is now the stuff of legend, taught to first-year neuroscience students around the world. How did this man survive a rod through the frontal lobe? Doctors that wrote of him later spoke of extreme behavioral changes, a man who was “. . . fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows”. 
Unfortunately, the legend of Phineas Gage’s post-injury brain is largely exaggerated, or at least based on rather thin evidence. But still, he was still a changed man, even if not in the extreme ways his legend suggests.
UCLA’s Jack Van Horn has reconstructed a model of Phineas Gage’s connectome. In the image above, the lower left image shows the “connectogram” of 110 healthy right-handed males, the major highways and byways between brain regions (the brain stem is at 6 o’clock, left and right hemispheres at 9 and 3 o’clock). The lower right image shows the connections that were likely disrupted by the iron spike through Gage’s frontal lobe.
Mo Costandi has a great write-up that you should check out. We now have a map of the damage to Gage’s brain. But do we really know any more about his supposed behavioral changes? Thanks to the exaggerations and sideshow mentality of those who studied hm while alive, likely not.
BONUS: Be sure to check out Robert Krulwich and Carl Zimmer moderating this debate on how much stock we should put in the connectome.
(via Neurophilosophy blog)

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