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Alien Hand Syndrome
January 25, 2011, 2:34 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

B.B.C.: Imagine being attacked by one of your own hands, which repeatedly tries to slap and punch you. Or you go into a shop and when you try to turn right, one of your legs decides it wants to go left, leaving you walking round in circles.

Last summer I met 55-year-old Karen Byrne in New Jersey, who suffers from Alien Hand Syndrome.

Her left hand, and occasionally her left leg, behaves as if it were under the control of an alien intelligence.

Karen’s condition is fascinating, not just because it is so strange but because it tells us something surprising about how our own brains work.

It started after Karen had surgery at 27 to control her epilepsy, which had dominated her life since she was 10.

Surgery to cure epilepsy usually involves identifying and then cutting out a small section of the brain, where the abnormal electrical signals originate.

When this does not work, or when the damaged area cannot be identified, patients may be offered something more radical. In Karen’s case her surgeon cut her corpus callosum, a band of nervous fibres which keeps the two halves of the brain in constant contact.

Continue reading the main story

Start Quote
It would take things out of my handbag and I wouldn’t realise so I would walk away; I lost a lot of things before I realised what was going on”
End Quote
Karen Byrne
Cutting the corpus callosum cured Karen’s epilepsy, but left her with a completely different problem. Karen told me that initially everything seemed to be fine. Then her doctors noticed some extremely odd behaviour.

“Dr O’Connor said ‘Karen what are you doing? Your hand’s undressing you’. Until he said that I had no idea that my left hand was opening up the buttons of my shirt.

“So I start rebuttoning with the right hand and, as soon as I stopped, the left hand started unbuttoning them. So he put an emergency call through to one of the other doctors and said, ‘Mike you’ve got to get here right away, we’ve got a problem’.”

Out of control

Karen had emerged from the operation with a left hand that was out of control.

“I’d light a cigarette, balance it on an ashtray, and then my left hand would reach forward and stub it out. It would take things out of my handbag and I wouldn’t realise so I would walk away. I lost a lot of things before I realised what was going on.”

Karen said the condition had been brought under control with medication Karen’s problem was caused by a power struggle going on inside her head. A normal brain consists of two hemispheres which communicate with each other via the corpus callosum.

The left hemisphere, which controls the right arm and leg, tends to be where language skills reside. The right hemisphere, which controls the left arm and leg, is largely responsible for spatial awareness and recognising patterns.

Usually the more analytical left hemisphere dominates, having the final say in the actions we perform.

The discovery of hemispherical dominance has its roots in the 1940s, when surgeons first decided to treat epilepsy by cutting the corpus callosum. After they had recovered, the patients appeared normal. But in psychology circles they became legends.

That is because these patients would, in time, reveal something that to me is truly astonishing – the two halves of our brains each contain a kind of separate consciousness. Each hemisphere is capable of its own independent will.

Brain experiments

The man who did many of the experiments that first proved this was neurobiologist, Roger Sperry.

Taken from and read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12225163

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