Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Curious Case of H.M.

There is one very famous case of amnesia. A young man, named H.M., with severe epilepsy was operated on, his hippocampus was removed, and he was left with profound amnesia. Research on him over the next 40 years established most of what is known about memory.

From an article in Esquire magazine by Luke Dittrich:
In 1953, the majority of H.M.'s hippocampus, along with some surrounding neuronal tissue, was surgically removed from both hemispheres of his brain (area in red). Because of H.M., it is known that memory function originates in this region. When Jacopo Annese finishes constructing his multidimensional, zoomable atlas of H.M.'s brain, scientists will be able to see at the neuronal level exactly how much of H.M.'s hippocampus and surrounding tissue Dr. Scoville left behind, and in what shape. The findings could transform memory science once again.
The article covers:
  • The supremely confident and "experimental" surgeon, William Beecher Scoville, who sliced his way into history (and is the grandfather of the author of this article).

  • Some aspects of the investigations on H.M. by Brenda Milner a brilliant young researcher from McGill who did the historical researches on H.M.'s memory loss.

  • The slicing and preservation of H.M.'s brain by Jacopo Annese of UC San Diego's Brain Observatory.
It is a fascinating slice of history that moves through generations and talks about aspects of how we came to know what we know about memory. There isn't much technical depth, but there is a wonderful sense of human life and the little accidents that make or break us.

This is especially poignant in the close of the article where Luke Dittrich makes clear how close a thing it was to his, and his grandfather's (William Beecher Scoville) never having been around to enable this story to be told:
I remember midway through one Christmas dinner, maybe his last one, when he pushed himself up from his chair at the head of the table, wandered back to his study, and came back a few minutes later with a crumpled bullet in his hand. He placed the slug down beside his plate, told us the story behind it. Stamford, Connecticut, turn of the century, a burglar breaks into the home of a young bachelor. The bachelor keeps a pistol by his bedside table but his pistol jams. The burglar's doesn't. A bullet enters the bachelor's chest, where it encounters a deflecting rib, skids away from a lucky heart. The bachelor survives and keeps the bullet as a memento. He eventually passes it down to his son.

The bullet just sat there, for the rest of the dinner, beside my grandfather's plate, and like some of the other artifacts in his home, it was both fascinating and terrible to contemplate. Had it found its target, had its aim been true, then my grandfather, his children, his children's children, most of the people sitting around the table, myself included, would have never existed. It was a matter of centimeters, a fluke of aim, bone, ballistics, and it had made all the difference, its repercussions rippling down through generations.
Life is full of tragic accidents. Some pay a price (H.M.) and some gain fame (William Beecher Scoville) from the flukes and accidents of history.

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