Author: Luke Dittrich
APA Style Citation
Dittrich, L. (2017). Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
Penguin, Random House, New York, N.Y.
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Luke Dittrich spent sixyears conducting impeccable research on perhaps the most famous patient in the history of neuroscience, Henry Gustav Molaison. During his life,he was knownasH.M.;,Henryis often citedas the original case study to help neuroscientists understand the role of the hippocampus in encoding short-term to long-term memories. Henry had dealt with increasingly alarmingand dangerous seizures since he was hit by a bicycle at age eight. Nearly 20 years later, Dr. William Beecher Scoville, a dashing, daring surgeon burrowed deep into Henry`s temporal lobe and into the hippocampus in an effort toease the occurrence of the seizures. Dittrich had a motivating force driving his long-term research on this project, Dr. Scoville was his grandfather.
While Henry Molaison is the central figure of the book, the story is set against a backdrop of the debate about the proper way toconduct a lobotomy, treatment of the mentally ill in the 1950s and the very real possibility that Dr. Scoville carried out a lobotomy on his own wife who suffered a psychotic break and was sent to the Instituteof the Living in Hartford,Connecticut. Dittrich describes heating and cooling treatments, which were an essential component of treating psychosis prior tothe availability of antipsychotic medication.
Dittrich remembers his grandmother as quiet and reserved but never knew about her history with mental illness prior tohis research for the book. Dittrich describes some of his grandfather`s risky surgical practices such as scheduling lobotomies on Saturdays or after hours even after most of the medical community had rejected their use. He compares his grandfather to the even more reckless Walter Freeman who wanted to allow psychologists rather than only neurosurgeonsto conduct lobotomies. Freeman used the barbaric “ice pick” lobotomy while Scoville used specially designed instruments to limit the depth and breadth of the damage to the cerebrum. Freeman operated on patients as young as 7 and as old as 72. Both men conducted thevast majority of lobotomies on women, most of whom were psychotic, but some with depressive disorders or even others who were simply considered to be “rebellious.”
For 20 years Henry lived with his seizures,andwhile this eventually prevented him from working, he was able to attend high school and had many recollections of his childhood. He recalled a girl in junior high whomhe had a crush on (she did not remember him), he recalled details about his parents and the homes in which they lived when he was a child,but had virtually no personal memories after his surgery. Because of the notoriety of H.M. (as he was knownin the research during his life), many individuals wanted to work with Henry to make their mark on the history of neuroscience. While Scoville conducted the surgery, he did not play a large role in Henry`s treatment or care post-surgery. Brenda Milner, a young female psychologist in a time when there were very few in the field, completed the psychological testing on Henry. While she tested him for many years, he never recognized her from one visit to the next. Henry met her for a series of tests both at McGill University where she worked and in his hometown. Henry`s episodic and semantic memories were essentially destroyed,butMilner found that he improved on the procedural task of outlining a star in the mirror. Henry claimed to have never seen the task before,,but improved on the task each time it was presented. He acknowledged that he found it quite easy, he could not identify whyhis performance was so quick. Milner concluded that procedural memories are heldin a location of the brain (cerebellum) distinct from those areas that held episodic and semantic memories. Thismay help to explain why other amnesiac patients like Clive Wearing have retained the procedural skills such as playing the organ they held before the hippocampal damage such as playing the organ.
When Henry`s parents passed away, adistant cousin became Henry`s guardian but gave the authority of all medicaland research decisions to Susan Corkinof MIT. Susan Corkin by coincidence was a friend of Scoville`s daughter (Dittrich`s mother) who was a neurologist and oversaw who had contact with Henry. She strictly regulated who came into contact with Henry and rejected most requests to work with himwithout giving them serious consideration. Some believe she was fiercely protective in order tosave H.M.`s anonymity, others like Dittrich believe that she did this out of self-interest in order tohave sole access to the most famous patient in neurological history. Even with his family connection, Corkin refused to let Dittrich meet H.M. or even share his location. She eventually sent a detailed list of restrictions written up by MIT lawyers regarding what Dittrich could and could not do, which he rejected, but eventually,he found out who H.M. was on his own.
After Henry`s death, the world was allowed to know his real name and Corkin realized she needed help if she were to continue to study Henry`s brain after his death. She employed the help of Jacopo Annese of the Brain Observatory in San Diego, California. He carried Henry`s brain from Boston back to his lab where it was encased in silicone and live-streamedin 2010 as it was cutinto 2,401 slices. These slices could be studied in detail to better understand the extent of the damage to Henry`s brain. Annese found that the hippocampus had not been entirely destroyedas previously believed. After over a year with the brain, Annese wanted to continue the investigation with Henry`s brain and intended to publish papers based on his findings. He was sued by MITfor the return of the brain which Corkin wanted to reside permanently at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital. After a prolonged fight, the brain was returnedto Massachusetts.
The contributions of Henry Molaison to science are significant in part because of the trauma he suffered as a child. However so are the nameless others who underwent leucotomies, lobotomies, insulin shock treatment, extreme heat or cold or other experimental procedures in which the results and impacts were unknown.
Other Related Resources
Interview with Author Luke Dittrich
H.M. Brain Slicing with Dr. Ramachandran and Roger Bingham
PBS: Interview with Susan Corkin about H.M.
Luke Dittrich interview with Susan Corkin
Famous Amnesia Patient`s Brain Cut into 2,401 pieces
BRAIN: A Journal of Neurology
Brenda Milner Biographyon her 100thbirthday: a lifetime of “good ideas”[JF1]
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation : Brenda Milner turns 100
Brenda Milner: Neuroscientist (video)
The Society of Neurological Surgeons: Profile of William Beecher Scoville
Wired: The Untold Story about Neuroscience`s Most Famous Brain
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Insulin Shock Treatment
Localization of Function