Unravelling the mysteries of the brain: Suzanne O’Sullivan, neuro detective

By: Rachel Cooke | Unravelling the mysteries of the brain: Suzanne O’Sullivan, neuro detective | Neuroscience | The Guardian

From a man who sees cartoon characters to a woman who plays an imaginary trumpet, Suzanne O’Sullivan makes life-changing diagnoses from bizarre symptoms. Rachel Cooke meets the award-winning neurologist

In a small, airless office high up in the warren-like National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square, central London, Suzanne O’Sullivan opens a laptop and nudges it in my direction confidingly. “Somewhere on here, I have some videos of patients having seizures,” she says, sounding (you can’t fail to notice it) somewhat excited. And then, more quickly: “Don’t worry, they all gave permission.” After this, she sets to fiddling, a little frustratedly, with the machine’s mouse. O’Sullivan, a neurologist whose particular area of expertise is epilepsy, may know an awful lot about what Emily Dickinson called the depths of the brain (“The Brain is deeper than the sea…”), but she isn’t, it has to be said, much of a hand with the wifi.

Finally, the videos start to play. In the first, a young woman is lying on her side in her bed in the telemetry ward (patients who are suffering from severe seizures can spend days in this unit, during which, wires attached to their heads, they are watched by highly trained neurophysiology technicians 24 hours a day). She is quite calm and still, but one of her hands is raised, the fingers moving, I now realise, in such a manner as to suggest she is working the valves of an invisible trumpet. “This is a fidgeting seizure,” says O’Sullivan, all of her attention on the screen. “But you wouldn’t really know it was a seizure at all if I hadn’t told you. It’s fairly subtle.” This is true. The ghostly fluttering lasts 20 seconds at most, and then it is over: so fleeting, I might have imagined it.

The fidget seizure comes from the temporal lobe, which is an emotional part of the brain

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