Friday, March 18, 2016

Phineas Gage: Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient

When Russ Hobbie and I discuss transcranial magnetic stimulation in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, we write that “because TMS is noninvasive and nearly painless, it can be used to study learning and plasticity (changes in brain organization over time).” When I worked with Mark Hallett and Leo Cohen at the National Institutes of Health, they were using TMS to study plasticity in patients who had undergone amputations or spinal cord injuries.

A photograph of Phineas Gage.
Phineas Gage.
How much can the brain reorganize and rehabilitate after an injury? We gain insight into this question by examining the amazing case of Phineas Gage. Recently, science writer Sam Kean published the article “Phineas Gage, Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient” in the online magazine Slate. Let me quote Kean’s opening lines.
On Sept. 13, 1848, at around 4:30 p.m., the time of day when the mind might start wandering, a railroad foreman named Phineas Gage filled a drill hole with gunpowder and turned his head to check on his men. It was the last normal moment of his life….

The Rutland and Burlington Railroad had hired Gage’s crew that fall to clear away some tough black rock near Cavendish, Vermont, and it considered Gage the best foreman around. Among other tasks, a foreman sprinkled gunpowder into blasting holes, and then tamped the powder down, gently, with an iron rod. This completed, an assistant poured in sand or clay, which got tamped down hard to confine the bang to a tiny space. Gage had specially commissioned his tamping iron from a blacksmith. Sleek like a javelin, it weighed 13¼ pounds and stretched 3 feet 7 inches long. (Gage stood 5-foot-6.) At its widest, the rod had a diameter of 1¼ inches, although the last foot—the part Gage held near his head when tamping—tapered to a point.

Gage’s crew members were loading some busted rock onto a cart, and they apparently distracted him. Accounts differ about what happened after Gage turned his head. One says Gage tried to tamp the gunpowder down with his head still turned, and scraped his iron against the side of the hole, creating a spark. Another says Gage’s assistant (perhaps also distracted) failed to pour the sand in, and when Gage turned back, he smashed the rod down hard, thinking he was packing inert material. Regardless, a spark shot out somewhere in the dark cavity, igniting the gunpowder, and the tamping iron rocketed upward.

The iron entered Gage’s head point-first, striking below the left cheekbone. It destroyed an upper molar, passed behind his left eye, and tore into the underbelly of his brain’s left frontal lobe. It then plowed through the top of his skull, exiting near the midline, just behind where his hairline started. After parabola-ing upward—one report claimed it whistled as it flew—the rod landed 25 yards away and stuck upright in the dirt, mumblety-peg-style. Witnesses described it as streaked with red and greasy to the touch, from fatty brain tissue.
Gage survived after his rod destroyed much of his frontal lobe. He eventually recovered much neural function, but his personality changed; Gage “was no longer Gage”. At least, so goes the traditional story as told in many neuroscience textbooks. Kean argues that these personality changes were not as dramatic as claimed, and were temporary. Years after the accident, Gage enjoyed fairly good health and lived a nearly normal life. His brain recovered. Kean writes
Modern neuroscientific knowledge makes the idea of Gage’s recovery all the more plausible. Neuroscientists once believed that brain lesions caused permanent deficits: Once lost, a faculty never returned. More and more, though, they recognize that the adult brain can relearn lost skills. This ability to change, called brain plasticity, remains somewhat mysterious, and it happens achingly slowly. But the bottom line is that the brain can recover lost functions in certain circumstances.
If transcranial magnetic stimulation had been developed in the first half of the nineteenth century (and why not? Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction 17 years before Gage’s accident), perhaps neuroscientists would have had the tool they needed to monitor and map Gage’s brain during his recovery. Magnetic stimulation—a classic application of physics to medicine—has taught us much about how the brain can change and heal. This knowledge might have implications for how we treat all sorts of brain injuries, from concussion to stroke to dementia to rods shot through our head. As Kean concludes, “If even Phineas Gage bounced back—that’s a powerful message of hope.”

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