Living with young onset Parkinson’s: Your remarkable brain

Sunday 6 September 2020

It was coincidence
that Clara and I wore black cloth facemasks, the same as those worn by the
undertakers, but it seemed fitting at a funeral during the covid-19 pandemic. A
sort of modern-day version of the plague.

I won’t dwell on the
proceedings other than to say that my father-in-law was buried on an
appropriately chilly and overcast day after a simple but moving church service
attended by extended family and a number of his erstwhile parishioners. A fitting
end to the long life of a thoroughly decent person.

Our trip to the Wirral
for a couple of days last week was one for reflection but the long train
journey also gave me time to read a book:
Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon
by Dr Rahul Jandial. Written by a leading specialist in brain tumours based in
Los Angeles, it’s a slightly strange mix of stories from the operating theatre,
popular neuroscience, and self-improvement guide but nevertheless is an
engaging and worthwhile read.

Dr Jandial presents
brain surgery as an adrenaline rush along the lines of something like free
climbing: one false move in a procedure lasting several hours could spell
disaster. Apparently, the popular perception of brain surgery being the most
elite medical specialisation, taking only the smartest apprentices, is true.
Brain surgeons really are very clever, the best of the best, but they also need
to be ice cool under pressure.

I always knew the
human brain is an astonishing product of millions of years of evolution, but
here are five remarkable things I learned from Dr Jandial’s book:

  1. You can have brain surgery whilst awake

If someone cracks your
skull open, you certainly feel it, but once inside, the brain itself has no
pain receptors and doesn’t feel anything. This leads to the amazing possibility
of waking up a patient once their brain is exposed and operating whilst talking
to them. This is useful for instance when a tumour is close to the areas of the
brain that process language: the surgeon can temporarily numb the areas he is
thinking of removing and check that the patient’s speech or ability to understand
language isn’t affected before proceeding. Once the tumour has been removed,
the patient is put back under again whilst the skull is closed.

  1. Left brain/right brain is a myth

Remember all that
stuff about the left side of your brain being the logical, analytical side and
the right side being the creative, artistic side? And that one side is dominant?
Apparently this stems from a 1973 article in the New York Times Magazine and it
quickly became a widely accepted truth. Only it’s been comprehensively demonstrated
to be untrue. There are some specialist areas of the brain, like language
processing, that are found only on one side, but the notion of “right-brained”
and “left-brained” is simply wrong.

  1. Bilingual children have significantly more developed brains

If as parents, you speak
more than one language, then try to raise your children as bilingual. It turns
out that people who are bilingual have better attention spans, learn faster
and, surprisingly, are at lower risk of dementia later in life.

  1. You can function with only half a brain

This one is truly
remarkable. In rare cases of severe epilepsy, the electrical activity on one
side of the brain is erratic and the only known cure is to amputate the
troublesome side, in a procedure known as a hemispherectomy. When performed on adults,
removing half the brain can have a significant impact on the ability to control
one side of the body, but when performed on children, such is the brain’s
neuroplasticity – its ability to adapt – that it will often rewire itself to
regain full control. Yes, there are people out there functioning normally with literally
only half a brain.

  1. Anyone can suffer from a neurodegenerative disease but there’s a
    lot you can do to lower the risk

Until we find cures for
different types of dementia and various neurological diseases, our best bet is
to lead healthy, active lives. Exercise is well known to slow down the onset
and progression of Parkinson’s for example. Keeping socially and mentally
active are both connected with reduced risk of developing dementia. Stimulating
and using your body and mind, and having a large social network won’t guarantee
that you won’t get afflicted in later life (think of Margaret Thatcher’s
dementia), but it will lower your chances.

The last point
certainly merits attention. It’s a triumph of nutrition and medicine that so many of us now live to our 70s, 80s and beyond. But nobody wants to lose their mental faculties, or
their identity, in old age.

Clara’s Dad led a
healthy life – both physically and mentally – for 94 years.

He was lucid right up
until the end.

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