After A Radical Brain Surgery, A Normal Life

7:34 minutes

A six-year old Pittsburgh area boy underwent radical surgery in an attempt to treat a seizure-causing brain tumor. The boy’s entire occipital lobe and and much of his temporal lobe were removed—material that added up to about one-sixth of his total brain matter. Researchers report this week in the journal Cell Reports that now four years later, the boy, nicknamed ‘U.D.’ in the literature, is living a surprisingly normal life despite the missing brain matter. While he does have a large blind spot on the left side of his face, he otherwise is a very typical 10-year old—a tribute to the plasticity and remapping abilities of the human brain.

Science reporter Annalee Newitz joins Ira to talk about the case of U.D. and other stories from the week in science, including a brain-controlled robot arm that can multitask,  the tale of Stonehenge-era burials, and research into possible reasons why the species Homo sapiens was able to outlast other hominins.

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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATO: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flato. Four years ago, a six-year-old Pittsburgh area boy underwent radical surgery in an attempt to treat a brain tumor that was causing severe seizures. Doctors removed the boy’s entire occipital lobe and much of his temporal lobe, material that added up to about a third of the right hemisphere of his brain. And this week, scientists reported on how the boy is doing without all that brain matter.

And it’s really good news, and very surprising news. And here to talk about that and other selected short subjects in science is Annalee Newitz, it’s a science journalist based in San Francisco. She joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hi. Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATO: This is really an interesting story. Tell us about the boy and what has happened to him.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is basically a victory for neuroplasticity, which is a term for how easily the nerves in our brain can regrow. And after he had this radical surgery, within about three years, the right side– the left side of his brain started taking over for a lot of the functionality that was lost in the right side. So the main thing doctors were concerned about was he had lost a part of the brain that does image recognition.

So recognizing objects, recognizing faces, taking basically data from our eyes and turning it into something that we understand. And as I say, within three years, the left hemisphere of his brain was helping him do object and face recognition.

IRA FLATO: So he recovered that ability. So he’s almost like a normal kid again?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: He is performing, they say, at age appropriate levels. He’s never going to be able to see completely out of the left side, like out of his left eye. But he is able to just turn his head and see. So he has full image and face recognition, which is great.

IRA FLATO: You know, this reminds me of an old story about now have a new measure of plasticity. Used to be the miner, they got the rod through his head. Remember that story?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right, yeah. And this is just another data point that shows us, at least in children, how plastic the brain can be, and how one part of the brain that we thought was lost actually can be recreated in another part of the brain.

IRA FLATO: That’s great news. OK. Let’s go on to another amazing brain news. You have a story about a bionic arm? This is wild. Wild story.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is not just a bionic arm. So I think people have probably heard a lot about the brain computer interface arms, which we’re calling them bionic arms. They are controlled by your brain. They pick up neural signals from your body that come from your brain. So some scientists in Kyoto, Japan said, well, if we can do this with someone who’s lost an arm, and needs a prosthetic, what about if we added a third arm?

What would people be able to do with it? And so they brought in 50 people and trained them to use a third arm, which was attached basically to their neck area, and had them do multitasking with it. And eight out of the 15 people that they tested were able to successfully do one task with their third arm, controlling it with their mind, and another task with their two biological arms. They were balancing a ball on a plate with their two biological arms, and holding on to a bottle with a third arm. So imagine the possibilities.

IRA FLATO: I’m not going to go there. But I’m just going to say, so they had to learn to think that they had a third arm, that they could use?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah. That’s part of what’s really fantastic about this study, is that it’s not just some sort of wacky science fictional thing. It really shows, again, how plastic our brains, are and how we can learn to function, with a third arm, and actually use it to do a separate task. So I could easily imagine this being used in factories, because how many times have you wished to have a third arm? Well, now you maybe can have one.

IRA FLATO: Factory is nothing. I can use my car keys on that one. Carrying the groceries.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: You can use it in everyday life.

IRA FLATO: All right. Now I know that you love archeology stories, and there’s one this week about Stonehenge. Tell us about that.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. So some archaeologists working in England reexamined some cremated remains that had been found at Stonehenge, and they did what’s called stable isotope analysis on them, which allows you to see what kind of chemicals that the person was exposed to in water, and in plants, as a child. So it tells you where those bones came from, where the person lived when they were a kid.

And what they discovered was that 10 out of about two dozen people were not local to the area of Stonehenge, that they’d been buried there and had very likely been cremated, and had lived and died in Wales, far, far to the west of Stonehenge. So they did this fantastic chemical analysis, which again is new in archaeology.

But then they also were able to analyze the burned wood with these remains to find out that they’d come from this forested area in Wales. So the thing that’s exciting about this isn’t just like, wow. OK. Welsh people are buried at Stonehenge. It also just gives us a much better sense of how widespread worship was at Stonehenge, or how widespread its influence was in the area.

If people were coming all the way from Wales, Stonehenge clearly did have– it was part of a culture that was spread all across Western England. So that’s a really interesting new window on that time in history.

IRA FLATO: That’s interesting. Finally, a theory about why homo sapiens are still around, but other hominids are not. We outlasted the other ones, right?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: We did. And it’s a perennial question in anthropology. Why did sapiens stick around, when you know homo neanderthalensis, Neanderthals didn’t. The Denisovans didn’t. A lot of other hominids did not. So there’s a new theory now coming out of the Max Planck Institute, which is where a lot of study on human evolution is being done.

And they think it’s actually not because we were so good with our tools, or that we had fancy language. Because now we know that Neanderthals likely had language as well. It’s just because we’re really good at being what’s called a generalist specialist species, which is a very odd combination. Usually species is either a generalist, like say Argentine ants, which can live anywhere. Or a specialist, like say tree sloths that can only live in a very, very specific kind of tree.

So humans can do both. We can go to lots of places, and then specialize. So we can go up into the mountains, we can go into the tropics, we can be on the coasts, we can be in deserts, in the Arctic and then specialize in those areas. And partly we’re able to do this because humans help each other even when they’re not kin.

We form groups that are a collection of different family groups, and help each other. So we’re both this weird thing called specialist generalists, but we’re also weird in that we tend to help people who aren’t in our family group to get into that kind of specialist mode. So basically, it’s not because we’re fancy with our language. We’re just really good animals. We’re good at adapting.

IRA FLATO: Well that’s very positive news these days about people.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yes, we’re good at something. We help each other out.

IRA FLATO: We can act together. Yes, we can come together in mutually beneficial ways. Thank you. Thank you very much, Annalee.


IRA FLATO: Have a good weekend. Annalee Newitz, science journalist based in San Francisco.

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