Book Review – “Patient H. M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets” by Luke Dittrich

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family SecretsPatient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In my neurological and neuroscience research and reading over the last several years, Patient H.M. came up frequently, but with very little detail except that his postmortem brain was used to do the most extensive open source brain map to date and that he suffered from profound amnesia.

So when I saw Luke Dittrich’s book, I wanted to read it.

The story behind Patient H.M. (Henry Molaison) is tragic and profound on so many levels for the patient – and the man – himself. But the other intertwining stories around this patient are, in many ways, just as tragic and profound, and, some cases, especially with M.I.T. and its “owner” of Henry’s case, Suzanne Corkin (who has longterm friendship ties to the author’s mother), ugly, mean, and often entirely dishonest, unethical, and illegal.

Dittrich’s grandfather, Bill Scoville, a prominent Boston neurosurgeon, became involved in psychosurgery (a fancy name for medial temporal lobotomies, which Scoville advocated the rest of his life – one of the secrets that I won’t reveal shows how committed to Scoville was to the surgery as a neurological cureall), and was the neurosurgeon who performed Henry’s lobotomy in 1956.

Henry suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was a young child. Within a short time of the injury, Henry began to experience frequent grand mal and petite mal seizures. The frequency and severity of these seizures worsened over time and had a dramatic effect on the quality of Henry’s life.

Although Henry was intelligent, each seizure set him back, not intellectually, but terms of daily living. He took large amounts of the known seizure medications, without any discernible results.

His aging parents worried about what would happen to Henry after they were gone (he was an only child), so when Scoville’s psychosurgery offered a glimmer of hope, they grasped for it eagerly.

Although much of the data – gathered and evaluated by Suzanne Corkin – about Henry following his lobotomy shows an almost Rain Man level of acumen in certain areas, the reality of his overall condition was not even close and quite dark and stark.

When a fuller analysis was done of Henry’s brain, post-mortem, the neuroanatomist, Jacopo Annese, found that Scoville had accidentally cut into the frontal lobe on one side of Henry’s brain during his medial temporal lobotomy, which mostly likely caused Henry’s severe amnesia (Henry could remember details – although not connect them together coherently – before his surgery, but could not learn anything new nor remember anything, as in making new memories, after his surgery).

As Henry aged, his neurological decline increased and accelerated (he was on a staggering number and dosages of medications and not only did his brain size shrink – the tell-tale sign of the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s Disease – but the damage done from his lobotomy caused death internally in various structures of Henry’s brain, resulting in other types of dementia). At the end of his life, Henry was no more than pharmocology in a wheelchair, unaware, unresponsive, unthere except physically.

I highly recommend this book because it’s a fascinating look at the brain itself. It also has twists and turns in the story that show the fallibility of all as humans, including those among us who believe themselves to be or have others believe them to be almost god-like (ain’t none of us even in the same universe ever, no matter what we or others think), and the way our human nature rules us to make bad and/or wrong decisions on a regular basis.

The most heart-wrenching quote of this book came from Henry himself: “Every day is alone in itself. Whatever enjoyment I’ve had, and whatever sorrow I’ve had.”

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