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At the age of 27, Henry Gustave Molaison underwent a life-saving round of brain surgery for his severe case of epilepsy, losing half of his hippocampus and most of his amygdala in the process. The procedure cured Henry of his epilepsy, but also destroyed his memory. Unfortunately, Henry’s surgery took place in 1953, and at the time doctors believed the hippocampus to be in charge of the sense of smell and nothing else – an inconvenience to lose, but certainly worth losing to cure epilepsy. Henry’s doctors were entirely incorrect. Losing this very important memory center wiped out much of Henry’s past memory and destroyed his ability to create new ones. Henry lived the rest of his life with half a minute of memory, a life permanently in the present. And while this destroyed Henry’s ability to care for himself, he spent the rest of his life in a specialized nursing home, his ordeal greatly advanced the science of memory and his actions show that even in terrible circumstances, people can still live happily.

This story starts with an action by a doctor who did not understand. The surgeon who operated on Henry, Dr. Scoville, knew he was performing a risky procedure. The technique had worked wonderfully for curing epilepsy in a number of patients, but two test subjects had also developed severe amnesia. Scoville ignored these warning signs and performed the surgery anyways. Even though he likely did save Henry’s life, Scoville later came to regret his decision, saying that he should have acknowledged these cases and researched alternative approaches.

Out of this failure to take in data, however, came a response by someone who did understand. The reaction of Henry to the procedure was so dominant that neuroscience instantly understood the hippocampus to have some role in memory. It had taken three trials and three errors, but the medical community finally grasped the significance of the brain region they were dealing with. Additionally, Henry agreed to take part in a wide range of experiments and trials throughout his life, providing the medical community with valuable new data on how the brain works. Henry’s sacrifice has led to increased knowledge and safety in neuroscience.

Even more than the medical community’s response, Henry’s actions truly represent an individual who understands the world around him. Even though he never formed new long-term memories and could only perceive the immediate past and present, Henry fully realized that his memory was artificially horrible and that he had probably had a medical procedure at some time. Furthermore, Henry often astonished researchers with his observational ability. At one point Henry deduced he was in MIT’s labs even though nobody had mentioned MIT for quite some time. Henry had seen a student wearing an MIT sweatshirt walk by the door, and instantly understood the situation from far less information than most people with an entire brain would need. The most important lesson that Henry demonstrates is that we have control over our lives. Even though he was robbed of his memory, Henry was usually very content. He accepted his situation and made the best of it, thrilling guests with his conversational skills and refusing to let the circumstances get him down. Henry provides an admirable example of taking control of our own lives.

 

Source

Argument with Myself – Mike Jay – London Review of Books – Retrieved from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n10/mike-jay/argument-with-myself

 

Comments (6)

  1. Serb Brar

    Reply

    I would echo Brian in the sentiment that the knowledge base of doctors is continually growing and that even though this surgery took place, it was done with all the facts available. As a result, doctors went forward with the surgery and were awarded with the new information that this section of the brain is very important in the preservation of memories. However, I find this very interesting as it is our memories that create our biases and mentality, and if we lacked long term memory, that would remove these barriers and biases, thereby making us more observant. This is very similar as to how very young children easily learn and observe everything around them, but this ability diminishes with more knowledge and experience because our personal silos are also built up around us as we age.

  2. Brian West

    Reply

    I feel that the level of information that doctors have is continuously growing. At the time of Henry’s surgery, it is possible that the doctors had all the information that was available at that time. This is a question of mine in the IMT theory of having all the information. What happens when you have all the information available but there is no way to know if that is enough information? in any case, doctors now know how to proceed in other cases similar to Henry’s.

  3. Amy Blatt

    Reply

    I found this article very interesting. I think the doctor should not have done the procedure without all of the information. It is a doctor’s duty to perform the best standard of care for their patient. He should not have ignored the studies where patients developed severe amnesia. Also, he should have informed Henry that this may be his condition after the surgery. I am actually a little surprised the doctor didn’t get sued for medical malpractice.

    With that said, Henry still enjoyed every minute of his life although he had no recollection of the previous week, day, or even minute. It was great that Henry decided to stay positive. The only thing is I don’t know if I agree with the statement that he had full control over his life. He would need to give consent every 30 seconds if that were to be true. Also, I wonder if he had changed his mind every time the doctors asked if he could be tested on, which statement would they go with? Is it fair to test on someone who is confused and without a memory? To my knowledge, this is when they bring in other family members to help the person make the decision or make it for them. Overall, Henry is very brave and although his life is without memory, he is still living it to the fullest and helping to advance neuroscience.

  4. Allison Baker

    Reply

    I find this very interesting because I am in a Physiological Psychology class and we just discussed Henry Molaison! H.M. had anterograde amnesia, so he could not form new memories. The hippocampus is critical in transferring short-term memories into long-term memories, so when the hippocampus was removed, H.M. could no longer transfer memories to his brain’s cortex and the information was lost after a very brief amount of time. His declarative memories were affected since the hippocampus controls these. However, nondeclarative memories were unaffected since the parahippocampal and entorhinal areas control these. Nondeclarative memories are things that you cannot discuss, like a skill of which you can only demonstrate your knowledge by performing the task.
    Anyway, in terms of IMT, it seems that an expert should have been selected to perform the surgery so that critical brain areas would not be completely removed from a patient. However, since this happened (and this was the only outcome possible given the information), we now have a greater knowledge of the role of the hippocampus than would have been possible without H.M.’s case.

  5. Kyle Westlake

    Reply

    After reading this article I can’t help but to bring up the movie 50 First Dates. I feel like this situation is unique, yes we did learn a lot about the brain in Henry’s expense, but was he truly in control of his life? He had such a short memory that he did not have the time to be sad. Going back to the movie, the person with the memory disability relied on other people every day to make sure that she was always happy and never had anything to worry about. In this case, doctors paraded Henry around without his consent so how could he have complete control of his life?

  6. Branden Lau

    Reply

    There are two IMT concepts that apply to this article. First, the article highlights the importance of identifying and utilizing experts. Even though someone may have a title, such as Dr., far too many people only see the face value of this proclaimed “expertise.” Instead, people should ask questions that would allow them to see whether or not a person is a true expert. Dr. Kashiwagi highlighted the importance of this when he had back pain. Second, Henry’s ability to live in the present is something that we should strive for. A lot of people live in the past and agonize over the future, but rarely do we live in the present moment. Perhaps, one of the most important takeaways from this article is our ability to live in the present, while also being able to cherish past memories.

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