William Reville: Maybe our brains aren’t so important after all
A discovery in the 1970s challenged ideas about how the brain works. So why did medical science ignore it?
MRI scan of a human head. Photograph: Thinkstock
In my column of November 9th, 2006, I described the amazing results reported in the 1970s by British paediatrician John Lorber to the effect that some normal adults, apparently cured of childhood hydrocephaly (water on the brain), had no more than 5 per cent of the normal volume of brain tissue. Lorber’s results, ignored by neuroscientists, have now been independently confirmed by clinicians in France and Brazil. Donald Forsdyke reviews this area in the journal Biological Theory, published online on July 25th, and explains how these results challenge cherished ideas about how the brain works.
Circulation of cerebrospinal fluid is blocked in hydrocephalus; fluid continues to enter the brain ventricles but cannot drain away. Brain volume increases and the head enlarges. Surgeons can successfully treat this condition by draining off the excess fluid through a small tube (stent). Ventricular expansion is halted and head size returns to normal.
John Lorber, professor of paediatrics at the University of Sheffield, examined 600 adults who had been treated as children for hydrocephalus. Lorber expected that their brain scans would appear normal: that is, craniums filled with brain matter. Most of them did, but 60 did not, instead showing the entire skull filled with fluid and only a thin peripheral rim of brain tissue, which accounted for about 5 per cent of cranial capacity. But the really amazing thing is that 30 of these 60 cases were above normal intelligence, one a “socially completely normal individual” with a degree in mathematics and a measured IQ of 126.
Lorber’s results were greeted with great scepticism. They were never published in peer-reviewed journals but were the subject of a television documentary, Is Your Brain Really Necessary? Lorber died in 1996. Roger Lewin reviewed Lorber’s work in Science in 1980.
L Feuillet and others confirmed Lorber’s findings in a 2007 paper in the Lancet (Vol 370, p362) reporting the brain scan of a French civil servant, married with two children, who had mild neurological symptoms that responded to treatment. The brain had a massive ventricular enlargement. Forsdyke uses these findings to bolster arguments that brain size neither scales with information content nor with intelligence. He cites the fact that, on average, the female brain is five ounces lighter than the male brain, yet female mental performance is in no way inferior to men. Also, most savants with prodigious memories have normal-sized heads, and there are cases where microencephalics (people with very small heads) have normal intelligence.
Forsdyke lists three hypotheses regarding how the brain stores information. Firstly, in some chemical or physical form consistent with brain chemistry and physiology; this is the “standard model”. Secondly, in certain subatomic forms unknown to biochemists. Thirdly, that long-term memory is stored outside the body.
The standard model can only accommodate the challenge posed by the hydrocephalic brain scans by assuming a huge amount of spare capacity (redundancy) and plasticity in the normal brain. However, in Forsdyke’s opinion these hydrocephalic cases simply call for an unimaginable level of redundancy and plasticity. If he is right, we have to seriously consider the second and third hypotheses, however improbable they may seem. Storage of information outside the body is particularly intriguing, analogous to cloud computing, where the individual computer (brain) acts mostly as a terminal for manipulating data and one retrieves from and stores data at a remote location. The brain now acts as a receptor/transmitter of some form of electromagnetic radiation. Sophisticated models, incorporating quantum mechanics, showing how this might work have been formulated. The concept of extracorporeal memory also raises the concept of mind or spirit, with corresponding metaphysical implications.
The brain is composed of grey matter (40 per cent) and white matter (60 per cent). Grey matter is composed of nerve cell bodies and white matter of fibres that connect various parts of the grey matter together. In Lorber’s fluid-filled craniums, the brain grey matter is relatively spare compared with the white matter. The fact that half these brains still function normally must surely tell us something about the way white and grey matter function in the normal brain.
Medical science should have checked out Lorber’s results immediately. That it dismissed them is deeply disturbing.
- William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC, http://understandingscience.ucc.ie