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02/19/2013

Inside the mind of the world's most famous amnesiac

BrainA 3D printout copy of Henry Molaison's brain. (Kate Allen/ Toronto Star)

 

What's it like to be the world's most famous amnesiac -- to suffer from lifelong memory loss as the result of a surgery gone wrong?

Henry Molaison was tranquil, good-humoured, and kind, doctors say.

"He was not unhappy. I'm sure of that," says Brenda Milner, a Canadian neuropsychologist who first assessed Molaison in Montreal.  "He felt he was doing something for science."

For five decades, Molaison was known around the world only as H.M. In 1953, in an attempt to cure the then-27-year-old Molaison's debilitating seizures, a surgeon removed both his medial temporal lobes.

It cured the seizures. But it left Molaison without the ability to form new conscious memories, and took away some of the memories formed before the surgery too. For the rest of his life, Molaison was the most studied memory-loss patient in the world. He died in 2008, at the age of 82.

Some of the doctors who performed those experiments were at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston on Sunday to talk about the legacy of Molaison. and his enduring contributions to the world of neuroscience.

Suzanne Corkin, a professor at M.I.T. who worked with Molaison, said that his case proved three crucial things.

First, scientists believed that region of the brain was tied to memory. But the case of Molaison clinched that theory.

Second, Molaison proved that a patient could suffer from memory loss without I.Q. loss. He was highly intelligent.

And third, his case showed that not all kinds of memory are the same. In later years, Molaison learned to use a walker (though he could never precisely explain why he needed it).

Corkin saw occasional outbursts of anger from Molaison. But on the whole, he was calm and funny. He loved to do crossword puzzles.

"He accepted it. He coped," says Corkin.

Asked to state his age, he would usually guess too low -- but the sight of himself in a mirror wouldn't send him screaming, since he had unconsciously learned that he was older than 27 (the same way he learned to use a walker, using what is known as "implicit memory," rather than "explicit memory," which is used to consciously store information.)

When he died in 2008, scientists performed scans of his brain and then carefully removed it from his body and prepared it for long-term safekeeping.

Jean Augustinack, a neuroscientist who was involved in the process -- and who brought a 3D printout of Molaison's brain to the conference -- reflected on Molaison's willingness to undergo to such experiments. He gave his consent to the post-mortem years before his actual death.

"He was very generous," Augustinack said.

Kate Allen is the Star's global science and technology reporter.  Follow her on Twitter @katecallen





Comments

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What an amazing story about Henry Molaison and the things we've learned from him. Thank you for that.

Very fascinating. It really appears conclusive that a large percentage of the physical brain is our 'hard drive', storing our memories, our experiences, all that truly sums up our personal unique identity. I think HM MIGHT mean that if anything like a non-corporeal 'soul' survives death, it does not include all that 'personal identity' data. Therefore, this may mean there is no such thing as ghosts who know who they used to be when alive, no afterlife, no heaven, no re-incarnation. None of that is possible without all the data we store on our 'hard drives' during our lives. Or, perhaps it means that some people's 'soul' download it and take it with us when we die, and some don't. Leaving the 2nd greatest mystery still un-solved.

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