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Ted Kennedy’s brain

June 2nd, 2008 · No Comments

The collective sigh of relief after hearing that Teddy Kennedy’s cancer surgery went well gave way to a wave of more detailed information describing what actually went down in that Duke University operating room.  The New York Times has an interesting article, posted today (for tomorrow).  This excerpt was very exciting:

In tumor removal surgery, these experts said, doctors at elite institutions use sophisticated imaging technology to produce a precise, three-dimensional picture of the tumor. They put the patient under anesthesia and cut away a piece of the skull just above the tumor. They then awaken the patient, and probe the area around the tumor to see exactly which parts of the brain are crucial for normal functioning.

If the tumor is in the parietal lobe — which was the case for Mr. Kennedy — doctors typically stimulate a series points on the surface of the exposed region while having the patient speak or identify words. This allows the surgical team to map the precise areas that support language and to preserve them. Each individual’s brain is slightly different, so each patient must be directly tested to mark the critical brain areas, which are often tagged with little paper markers.

In 2006, members of the Duke team published a study suggesting that, with careful imaging techniques, they could map language areas before opening the skull; in 6 of 37 patients tested, the imaging enabled a more complete removal of the tumor “than otherwise would have been achieved,” the authors reported.

The challenge for the surgeon in any such surgery is to remove as much of the tumor as possible, while avoiding the sensitive areas.

In other words, it’s kind of like playing “Operation!”  I, of course, am not wishing to make jokes at the expense of Senator Kennedy, who I admire.  It’s just that the real world manifestations of all of that neuroscience and neuropsychology gets me very excited, in the geekiest sort of way.

It will be fascinating to follow his progress, if that information is made public, to see to what degree his motor and language abilities are affected by this surgery and the subsequent chemotherapy and radiation therapy.  And I will be among the first in line to purchase the book that Oliver Sacks writes on this episode, when it is published.

Tags: health

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