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Demystifying phantom pains, cross-connections in the brain

Speaking at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, noted neuroscientist VS Ramachandran held forth on a number of neurological phenomena, including Synesthesia and phantom limbs.

HTLS2015 Updated: Dec 05, 2015 21:10 IST
Dr VS Ramachandran, the director of Center For Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego, speaks during a session on “What Neurology Can Tell Us About Human Nature” at Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi on Saturday
Dr VS Ramachandran, the director of Center For Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego, speaks during a session on “What Neurology Can Tell Us About Human Nature” at Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi on Saturday(Virendra Singh Gosain/HT Photo)

When Shakespeare compared the beauty of his heroine Juliet to the sun 400 years ago, was it just the legendary playwright’s literary flair powering what would become one of the most iconic pieces of literature?

No, says noted neuroscientist VS Ramachandran, pointing at a not-so-rare condition called Synesthesia that causes people to mix up sensations and perceptions – say like colour and touch and numbers.

“The brain comprises connected, malleable compartments that are in dynamic equilibrium and sometimes there’s cross wiring. The lower form of this makes people confused between colour and shapes – parts of the brain that are next to each other – but higher forms muddle concepts, such as in Romeo and Juliet,” Ramachandran said. The condition is eight times more common among artists and writers, he said.

Speaking on the concluding day of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi, the Padma Bhushan awardee held forth on a number of neurological phenomena, including Synesthesia and phantom limbs.

“Over 90% of amputated patients experience some sort of pain in the body part that has been removed. This is called the phantom limb syndrome that triggers depression or even suicide,” he said.

Even though the limb has been removed, the brain continues to send signals to that body part to move. When these commands are not obeyed, it results in pain – patients describe clenching, nails digging into fists and agony, expressing a desire to somehow make the limb move.

Director of Center For Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego, Dr VS Ramachandran and Dr Vikram Patel, FMEDSCI, professor of International Mental Health & Wellcome Trust senior research fellow during a session on “What Neurology Can Tell Us About Human Nature” at Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. (Virendra Singh Gosain/HT Photo)

Ramachandran found a novel way out. He created a contraption called a mirror box – which has a mirror at the centre of a cardboard box. The patient places the good limb on one side and the stump in the other, and starts moving the healthy limb, looking through the good side.

“Once the patient moves the normal limb and sees its mirror image, the brain is visually tricked into believing that the phantom limb is moving, alleviating pain,” Ramachandran said.

Such phantom syndrome can also be found in people who feel a part of their body is alien to them – such as one of Ramachandran’s patients, who wanted to cut off a healthy arm. He wasn’t crazy and was suffering from a condition called Xenomelia.

The brain has a special zone called the Superior parietal lobule where all our senses – sensory, muscular, vision converge to make a 3D image. His patient’s brain had the hand part of that image missing and because the brain abhors discrepancy, it wanted the arm removed.

Click here for full coverage on Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2015