Thursday, May 14, 2009

Like an ice pick in your eyeball.

I have been thinking a lot about lobotomies lately.

There's not much easily-Googled info about the specifics of prefrontal lobotomies. I mean, yeah yeah you can look at the Wikipedia page, and Neurophilosophy has a nice roundup of the history, and there's stories from lobotomy survivors. Any one of those links will give you a good idea about the effects of a lobotomy. Typically, lobotomies make people quiet, calm, and unemotional - to the point where a person who's been given one can get "zombie-like".

But only a passing mention is given to the actual lobotomy itself - severing the white matter that connects the thalamus with the frontal cortex. What is that all about?

You've all seen the typical neuron diagram, right? Well if you haven't:

A brain cell / nerve / neuron has a cell body (soma) just like any other cell, with a nucleus and all that. It's special in that it has a long extension called an axon that ends in a synapse on another neuron. When a neuron is activated, it sends a little electrical pulse down its axon. That's how nerves send signals.

Your brain has "gray matter" and "white matter". Gray matter is where your cell bodies (somas) are. White matter is where the axons go. So when you cut white matter, like in a lobotomy, you're cutting axons. In essence, you're cutting the cables from one brain area to another.

The axons affected in a lobotomy start in the thalamus and go to the frontal cortex. The thalamus is like a relay station; sensory, emotional, and other basic info go to the thalamus, which processes it a little and sends it on through the white matter to the cortex.

The cortex is the outside layer of your brain - the gray wrinkly stuff that you think of when you think "brain". It does a lot of stuff, but the frontal cortex is what's important here. The frontal and prefrontal cortex are basically the thinkin' parts of the brain. That's where the planning happens. Any action you consciously take has its roots in the frontal cortex.. and many actions you don't consciously take.

So, basically, a lobotomy cuts the cables that send emotional and sensory information to the "planning" part of your brain. Knowing this, you can explain the effects of a lobotomy very well. People are quiet and calm because the part of their brain that plans actions and responds to emotions ain't getting the usual amount of information.

This is great, if you just want "that crazy person" to stop bothering you, shut up, and sit in the corner staring at a wall. But for those of us who understand that people with cognitive or mood disorders are human fucking beings...

Well, we've come a ways since lobotomies, right?


  1. This was very interesting. You're right, there isn't much information out there other than personal experiences of those who've survived. I was in Barnes & Noble the other day and saw a book called "My Lobotomy." You might be interested it, I didn't get it because there's too many books sitting on my shelf that I haven't read yet. However, lobotomies are not the answer. It's like a cop-out, instead of learning what is going on with a person, why they're acting the way they are, and what one can do help the person.

    Interestingly, there are studies out there now saying that as we age, something happens to the white matter of our brains. The deterioration of the white matter may actually be a part of why older people hunch over, loose their balance, etc.

  2. Lobotomies are a horrible first-line treatment for anything.. I think you'd dig the

    But there's a lot more going on during aging than white matter degradation.. though that could have something to do with balance. I had thought that the hunching-over thing had something to do with gradual bone density loss (osteoporosis n'at), and balance had more to do with the inner-ear canal hair cells losing their sensitivity.

    I mostly posted this because I'm theoretically writing a science blog here, my specialty is neuroscience/psychology, and I've been thinking about it a lot lately. :)