Brainstorm by Suzanne O’Sullivan – the neurologist as sleuth

By: Colin Grant | Brainstorm by Suzanne O’Sullivan – the neurologist as sleuth | Neuroscience | The Guardian

The author of It’s All in Your Head investigates mysterious symptoms as a detective would, but still marvels at the mysteries of the brain

Victor Horsley, one of the first surgeons to carry out a successful brain operation, was renowned for his arrogance towards peers and extraordinary sensitivity to patients. A junior doctor recalled that when conducting ward rounds, “he gave each patient the impression that he was his sole care in life and would arrange their pillows with a tender deftness”. In 1886, his operation on James B, an anonymous patient with intractable epilepsy, cured him of further seizures; it rendered James B a significant footnote in medical history and made Horsley a star.

That first brain surgery illuminates the symbiotic relationship of patient and physician, now explored often in this golden age of doctor-authors. In transcribing case histories as the source material for books, medics must wrestle with the dilemma, anticipated by the Hippocratic oath, which cautioned “whatsoever in the course of practice you see or hear that ought never to be published abroad, you will not divulge”. The neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan is alert to Hippocrates and acknowledges the debt owed to patients in Brainstorm, the follow-up to her prizewinning It’s All in Your Head. The new book comes with the subtitle “Detective Stories from the World of Neurology”, but many of the mysterious cases to be solved here are those of patients visited by the “occasional, sudden, excessive, rapid and local discharge of grey matter” of the brain that characterises epilepsy.

One of the enigmas of epilepsy is its stealth: patients are often unaware of the seizure’s arrival

Related: It’s All in Your Head review – enduring mystery of psychosomatic illness

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