In This Week's Podcast: A Neuroscientist Forgets Her Name

This week’s story, "A Picture of My Brain," came to us from Providence. Newly married and halfway through her PhD in neuroscience, Amanda Duffy is excited to get $20 and an image of her brain when she volunteers to be a control in an MRI study. Instead, she gets a diagnosis of intraventricular meningioma, a rare brain tumor.

The lesson here is, Never get your brain scanned. I think.

When she wakes up from her brain surgery, her problems are far from over. She finds herself unable to correctly answer simple questions such as, What is your name?

“Imagine, halfway through your PhD in neuroscience, forgetting how to multiply, tell time, or understand what the number four is,” she says. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine. As far as I’m concerned, a PhD in neuroscience is hard enough to get already.

It turns out these things are all symptoms of Gerstmann Syndrome, a rare disorder that can occur after brain injury. Gerstmann Syndrome was discovered by, who else, Josef Gerstmann, an Austrian neurologist, in 1924, after a 52-year-old woman was admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Vienna with writing and memory problems. People suffering from Gerstmann Syndrome (not to be confused with Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker syndrome -- this guy really likes naming things after himself)  usually have four main symptoms:

  • Dysgraphia, which is a fancy word for being unable to write coherently.
  • Dyscalculia, which is a fancy word for being unable to do math. I know, sounds familiar to many of us. But this can actually go a lot farther than being bad at multiplication. Gerstmann sufferers often can’t do simple arithmetic or even visualize numbers, as Amanda described above.
  • Finger agnosia. Josef Gerstmann was the first person to define this (and somehow, he managed not to name it after himself). It’s described as an inability to “distinguish, name, or recognize the fingers.” And it includes not just your own fingers, but everyone else’s too, oddly enough.
  • Left-right disorientation -- or not being able to tell left from right. (I know. This one is almost a let-down after the other three.)

Of course, for a real-life glimpse into the mind of someone dealing with Gerstmann Syndrome, you’ll just have to listen to Amanda’s story...

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director of The Story Collider