May 22 - A case of brain damage that occurred 164 years ago is yielding new insights for scientists trying to establish how white matter engages with the rest of the brain to affect behavior. Phineas Gage was a 25-year-old railway worker who gained sudden fame for surviving an accident that blew a three and half foot long metal spike though his head. Rob Muir reports.
TV AND WEB RESTRICTIONS~**MUST COURTESY LABORATORY OF NEURO IMAGING (LONI), UCLA HANDOUT FOR USE OF "PHINEAS GAGE WHITE MATTER CONNECTIVITY RENDERING" / MUST COURTESY JOHN DARRELL VAN HORN AND THE UCLA LABORATORY OF NEURO IMAGING, 2012 FOR USE OF DAMAGE TO GAGE'S BRAIN STILL / MUST COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS: JACK AND BEVERLY WILGUS FOR USE OF PHINEAS GAGE STILL / MUST COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS: BIOGRAPHICAL HISTORY OF MASSACHUSETTS FOR USE OF DR. JOHN HARLOW STILL Remarkably, the iron railway spike that pierced Phineas Gage's head in 1848 didn''t kill him. Phineas had been laying track for a new line in Vermont when an explosive charge sent the spike upward through his cheek, brain and out top of this head. The spike was later found covered with blood and brain tissue but, Phineas Gage survived, although according to reports at the time he was a changed man (SOUNDBITE) (English), JOHN VAN HORN, UCLA ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF NEUROLOGY, SAYING: "He was so different after this injury. He was profane and irresponsible and a number of other adjectives to describe him, that he was no longer who he was before the injury." UCLA neuroscientist John Van Horn, is fascinated by the case of Phineas Gage. he believes Gage's injuries might shed light on modern neurological problems so he and his team have digitally simulated the passage of the iron spike though Gage's skull to assess the extent of the damage to the white matter in his brain (SOUNDBITE) (English), JOHN VAN HORN, UCLA ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF NEUROLOGY, SAYING: "The white matter connects and conveys the signals between the different brain areas. And while he may have cortical damage, and that's very important for cognition and executive functions, those things that help us maintain working memory through cognitive processes, those brain areas also connect through a very diffuse set of pathways that connect those frontal lobes and those areas that were damaged to the rest of the brain, indicating that the potential damage was much more widespread than people had previously believed." Van Horn believes there are similarities between Gage's radical change of behaviour and the behaviour of people affllicted by degenerative neurological diseases. SOUNDBITE) (English), JOHN VAN HORN, UCLA ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF NEUROLOGY, SAYING: "So understanding the pattern and connectivity of the brain can help us understand and develop cures for things like Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, as well as other degenerative disorders of the brain." Phineas Gage died after a series of convulsions eleven years after the accident. But for science, his legacy lives on. Rob Muir, Reuters.