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Say 'Aaah' | Booster Shots

Early Brain Research a Hit-and-Miss Proposition

April 02, 2001|ROSIE MESTEL

In honor of National Medical History Awareness Week, this column is devoted to tales from labs of yesteryear. OK, OK, so there is no Medical History Awareness Week (that we know of). The column is devoted to medical history because I happened to drive to UCLA last week to learn about old experiments with brains.

Louise H. Marshall, recently retired director of the UCLA Neuroscience History Archives, gave a tour of her lair, a tiny room stuffed with old papers and photos and decorated with pictures of brains and brainy scientists. (There was also an alluring big box housing antique brain surgery equipment--if only we could have taken it out of the box and played with it!)

Marshall presented pictures of lots of pioneering neurologists--such as Eduard Hitzig of Germany, he of the very tolerant wife. In the 1870s, it was hard to find places to do brain experiments, so Hitzig merrily opened up skulls on her dressing table.

And then there was the 1870s doctor Roberts Bartholow, who couldn't resist electrically stimulating the brain of a patient who had a huge abscess that (yikes!) had eaten away part of her skull to reveal her brain pulsating beneath.

Depending on where Bartholow touched that brain, she moved her limbs or felt tingles. (He got into quite a bit of trouble for experimenting on a patient this way.)

Best of the bunch was Wilder Penfield, who found out amazing things while treating people with epilepsy in the 20th century. Then, as now, one option for really bad cases of epilepsy was cutting the bit of brain causing seizures. And that meant knowing something about what bits of brain did what.

Penfield electrically tickled different bits of patients' brains and found they would remember things, suddenly go "ah-ah-ah," roll their eyes or move a limb. From these findings, he created a strange, little cartoon man called a "homunculus," which shows how much of the brain is devoted to moving and sensing different parts of the body.

The homunculus has whopping huge hands, feet and lips and an obscenely large tongue. But it has a puny little trunk and legs.

Medical Ideas That Seemed Crazy

I've finally finished that detective book I was reading (you could have knocked me down with a feather when I learned it was Matthew who killed Nicola). Now I'm reading a book that fits in well with this week's arbitrary medical theme: "Great Feuds in Medicine," by Hal Hellman (John Wiley & Sons, 2001). It seems a lot of truths taken for granted today were widely mocked by docs in centuries past.

Here's a couple of examples:

* The blood circulates in the body and is pumped by the heart--proposed by British physician William Harvey in 1628. Ridiculous!

After all, for 1,400 years doctors had known that blood was made in the liver and then kind of worked its way outward before dissipating near the surface of the body. The heart, of course, was the seat of the spirit.

Shocked, British censors forbade the publication of Harvey's book; it was printed in Germany instead. Harvey was derisively nicknamed the "Circulator." But he was scientific and, among other things, had calculated that at the rate blood moves, the liver would have to create more than 65 quarts of blood an hour. This seemed like a bit of a stretch.

* Doctors who didn't wash their hands after handling putrid corpses were infecting and killing women in maternity wards--proposed by Hungarian physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. Outrageous!

Death rates from so-called child-bed fever in the Viennese clinic where Semmelweis worked were as high as 30%. Was it noxious air? Cosmic, electrical emanations? Or the psychological stress of being examined by male students? All these were considered far more plausible and far less insulting than Semmelweis' notion--that it was the doctors' hands themselves.

Of course, simply having a radical idea doesn't mean it's right: Most "nutty" ideas are probably nutty. But it makes one wonder: What is it we're doing or thinking today that will appall the medical folks of tomorrow?

*

If you have an idea for a Booster Shots topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, rosie.mestel@latimes.com.

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