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The Slifkin Affair

Is Your Brain Really Necessary?
Roger Lewin
Science, New Series, Vol. 210, No. 4475. (Dec. 12, 1980), pp. 1232-1234.

There's a young student at this university," says Lorber, "who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain." The student's physician at the university noticed that the youth had a slightly larger than normal head, and so referred him to Lorber, simply out of interest. "When we did a brain scan on him," Lorber recalls, "we saw that instead of the normal 4.5-centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid."

This is dramatic by any standards, and Lorber clearly enjoys retailing the story. But, startling as it may seem, this case is nothing new to the medical world. "Scores of similar accounts litter the medical literature, and they go back a long way," observes Patrick Wall, professor of anatomy at University College, London, "but the important thing about Lorber is that he's done a long series of systematic scanning, rather than just dealing with anecdotes. He has gathered a remarkable set of data and he challenges, `How do we explain it?' "

How can someone with a grossly reduced cerebral mantle not only move among his fellows with no apparent social deficit, but also reach high academic achievement? How is it that in some hydrocephalics whose brains are severely distorted asymmetrically, the expected one-sided paralysis is typically absent? And how is one to interpret the apparent restoration to normality of a hydrocephalic brain following a shunt operation? These are the challenges that Lorber is proffering his neurology colleagues.


As to the question "Is your brain really necessary?" Lorber admits that it is only half serious. "You have to be dramatic in order to make people listen," concedes the tactician. Bower's answer to the tongue-in-cheek question is this: "Although Lorber's work doesn't demonstrate that we don't need a brain, it does show that the brain can work in conditions we would have thought impossible." Bower occasionally complains that Lorber's style is less scientific than it might be. He concedes, however, that "there are still many questions to be answered about the human brain, and it has to be admitted that Lorber's provocative approach does make you think about them."-