Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Why brain research matters

In the mid-nineties, a nervous twitch around my right eye started to irritate me. Neither the ophthalmologist nor the neurologist had an answer. It probably was related to stress, they opined. Although I did not feel stressed, their assumptions appealed to me for it meant that I was able to do something about it myself. I started to regularly ride my bike, practised meditation (half-heartedly), slept longer hours. My nervous twitch was not impressed; it expanded to the corners of my mouth.

You are suffering from a hemifacial spasm, a second neurologist told me. He treated it with botulinum toxin injections but suggested neurosurgery. I did not want to hear about it. The idea that somebody would perform surgery on my brain terrified me. And, although the botulinum injections were a nuisance, they helped.

I read about the hemifacial spasm on the internet but apart from the fact that my facial nerves were somehow damaged I did not understand much. That there was a brain connection eluded me.

I went to see an acupuncturist who couldn't help. Then I had a talk with a renowned neurosurgeon who informed me that of the thirty such operations he had so far performed twenty-seven had turned out well – I only kept thinking of the three that had not gone well.

The twitch became worse. Photographs taken at that time showed my right eye completey closed. People who didn't know me might have mistaken me for a mentally disturbed person.

I eventually got so angry about my condition that I decided to undergo surgery. The neurosurgeon explained what he would be doing. This is how I understood him: your facial nerves are covered by a tube, this tube is partly damaged, there are dents that need to be mended.

The night before the surgery, I was given a form that told me that the surgical intervention may have various unwanted effects. I could lose my hearing, my speech, my sense of balance, well, just about anything or so it seemed. Needless to say, only somebody who's completely nuts would sign such a form. Or somebody who has confidence in the surgeon. I decided to opt for the latter and signed the form.

The surgical intervention was successful yet after a few months the twitch was back, albeit not as intense as before. The neurosurgeon explained that, although he had never observed it himself, he knew from the literature that in some cases the twitch had disappeared after four years. In my case, this happened after six years, lasted for two, resurfaced again, and eventually came to a standstill.

Brain research was the basis for this ultimately successful surgery. Without it I wouldn't be able to lead the normal life I'm living today.


Brain research not only matters to neurosurgeons and their patients, it matters to all of us.

There's for instance the question whether we have a free will or whether our brain is wired in such a way that we are simply acting out what is already determined. Should research prove that there is no free will, then our legal system would be without basis. For how could somebody be punished if he were not responsible for his acts?

Or take seeing. I used to think that the act of seeing is defined by what the retina perceives. Yet only a very small part of the 10 billion bits that per second reach the retina end up in one's awareness. It appears that the brain is deleting the biggest part of the image in order to come up with a new image from other sources.

Moreover, in our dreams we can see images with our eyes closed. Research suggests that we see what we remember. But how come the American writer Helen Keller, who was not only blind but also deaf, was able to describe a crystal as well as a rose and could hear sounds in her sleep? It is the brain that generates images and sounds. In other words, the brain co-constructs our experience of reality.

Or take anxiety. Until the 1950s, says Professor Leslie Iversen, who teaches pharmacology at Oxford University, „we learned that there were no chemical transmissions in the brain, that it was just an electrical machine.“ Nowadays, people suffering from anxiety disorders are routinely prescribed a wide variety of tranquilizers. That however does not mean that these disorders have declined, instead they seem, together with the sale of tranquilizers, to have increased. In addition, there is a danger that patients might get addicted to these chemical solutions.

In order to answer such questions more brain research is needed.

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