A popular news item going around is that a woman in China has been discovered with no brain. This is exaggerated. She’s only missing a major part of her brain that in theory she shouldn’t still be alive without. Let us explain what’s going on.
Wait, wait, wait, “woman with no brain?” What the hell?
According to io9, a woman came to a Chinese hospital suffering from dizziness and nausea, and happened to mention she’d had balance issues all her life. They did an X-ray of her head and there’s just a big gap where her cerebellum should be.
…OK, I’ve heard of that part of the brain, so I’m assuming not having it is bad.
Well, it’s key to motor control, tied to attention and language, and may even regulate fear and pleasure responses. It’s basically the switchboard between the rest of your body and your brain. So, yes. Not having it should, in theory, be a crippling disability.
So, what, this woman can’t move?
No, actually, she was getting around and doing stuff just fine, although apparently she had trouble hitting developmental milestones. She couldn’t walk unassisted until she was seven, and was unintelligible until she was six. On the other hand, she got over it; apparently the only observable symptom these days is slow and slightly irregular movement. She’s married, has a daughter, and basically you wouldn’t think she’s missing a chunk of her brain unless you put her through some neurological tests.
How the hell is that even possible?
Neuroplasticity! Basically, if the brain notices there’s a problem, like a massive chunk of it missing, it starts rewiring the other parts to pick up the slack. It’s not going to be as good as having the original parts, but it’s good enough to function and over time can largely restore function. You know how stroke victims can start walking and talking again with the right therapy? That’s neuroplasticity in action. This, of course, is a rather more dramatic demonstration.
How rare is this?
There have been a grand total of nine known cases. This woman might be the first we’ve observed while the personal was still alive.
Wow, so basically she can live out the rest of her life normally, without a piece of her brain?
Yeah, pretty much. We’re sure the cash from the inevitable TLC documentary about her will help too.