Cognitive Daily

The incredible, adaptable brain

Greta and I have been back from Europe for about 36 hours now, and we’re slowly adapting to life back in the US. Sure, the olive oil’s not as good, and wine costs a fortune, but amazingly we’re finding that we’re able to accommodate to these problems, as well as the 7-hour time shift from Athens to Charlotte.

I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise to us — after all, the human brain is a remarkably adaptable organ. As many, many blogs have observed, a 44-year-old man, married with kids and holding a steady job, was found to have practically no brain matter in his skull:


Corpus Callosum describes how this could have happened:

As a child, he had been told he had hydrocephalus. A shunt was placed to drain the fluid. He was doing fine, and at age 14 the shunt was removed. That would have been around 1973, so CAT scans and MRIs would not have been available.

Over the years, it appears, fluid gradually reentered the brain, but slowly enough that the remaining brain cells could adapt. It was only when he visited the doctor 30 years later, complaining of weakness in his leg, that a modern brain scan was conducted, with the astonishing results we see today.

Another study has received less notice in the blogosphere, but describes a similar phenomenon:

Cochlear implants–electronic devices inserted surgically in the ear to allow deaf people to hear–may restore normal auditory pathways in the brain even after many years of deafness.

The results imply that the brain can reorganize sound processing centers or press into service latent ones based on sound stimulation.

“The results imply a restoration to some extent of the normal organization through the use of the cochlear implant,” says Manuel Don, PhD, of the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles. “They also claim to find ties between the degree of restored organization and a hearing task. Such ties are of enormous importance in evaluating cochlear implant benefits.”

Just 8 months after receiving cochlear implants, profoundly deaf adults formed auditory processing abilities that nearly matched non-deaf individuals.

The brain truly is a remarkable thing!


  1. #1 Marvin
    July 24, 2007

    Welcome back folks! There’s no place like home. I’m sure you’ll find that everything is properly labeled and there are no rip-off merchants, like there are all over Europe.

  2. #2 Scholar
    July 24, 2007

    That’s how my brain feels on Mondays.

  3. #3 han
    July 24, 2007

    it is incredible how adaptive our body, and its individual parts, can be. while the brain is one organ that has, relatively, less ability to compensate, if given a enough time and especially if the “insult” takes place at a young age, as is the case above, it can compensate enough for ‘sufficient functionality”. there are examples of children who have had entire one side of the cerebral hemisphere (part of the forebrain) removed at young age, being able to gain enough compensatory hypertrophy/hyperplasia from the other side to be relatively “normal” in life. removal of one cerebral hemisphere in an adult would be devastating, as we know from stroke patients. hydrocephalus, as in the case above, is not really loss of any brain tissue. it is dilatation of the ventricular system – there are various causes for this – and compression of the brain tissue. this does prevent the brain from maturing properly but there is no loss of tissue, per se. these patients do not usually have normal brain function, therefore decreased IQ, but depending on the severity of the hydrocephalus, they can have varying degrees of functionality. some can even go on to live a “full” life. these patients actually have large heads and large appearing brain on the surface. but the amount of brain tissue, thereby its weight, is less than average. in the case above and as is the case for children who is found to have hydrocephalus, the most common type is congenital stenosis of the aqueduct of sylvius (part of the ventricular system that drains cerebrospinal fluid from the third ventricle to the fourth). these patients do not get better on their own. the external shunt is usually kept indefinitely. it is somewhat surprising that this patient’s shunt was removed some time ago. i suspect that the removal of the shunt had contributed to the eventual outcome of the brain development and appearance. another interesting situation that are seen sometimes is patients missing a portion of the brain called corpus callosum (from improper development). the corpus callosum is the largest of the “bridges” that connect the left and right side of the brain, very important in allowing the two sides of the brain to function in unison and in coherent fashion. the patients missing this part of the brain usually are markedly dysfunctional, but once in a while, they lead “full lives” as in the case above. there are numerous cases of those who have other organs either partly missing from developmental mishap or surgically removed and are functional. truly amazing.

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