early February In 2016, a woman tended to email several MIT scientists after reading an article on their study of the brain’s response to music. “I have an interesting brain,” she told them.
EG asked to use her initials to protect her privacy, but she was missing her left temporal lobe, the part of the brain thought to be involved in language processing. However, EG didn’t quite fit what the scientists were studying, so they recommended her to Evelina Fedorenko, a cognitive neuroscientist who also studies language at MIT. This is the beginning of a fruitful relationship.The first EG brain-based paper was recently published in the journal neuropsychologyFedorenko’s team expects to release more.
For EG, who is in her 50s and grew up in Connecticut, a missing chunk of her brain has little to no impact on her life. She has a graduate degree, has an impressive career, and speaks Russian — a second language — so well that she keeps dreaming. She first learned that her brain was atypical in the fall of 1987 at George Washington University Hospital, when she had it scanned for an unrelated reason. The cause was most likely a stroke she suffered as a child; today, that area of the brain has only cerebrospinal fluid. For the first decade after her discovery, EG told no one but her parents and two of her closest friends. “It creeps me out,” she said. She’s told many more people since then, but it’s still a small circle that knows her unique brain anatomy.
Doctors have repeatedly told EG over the years that her brain doesn’t make sense, she said. A doctor told her she should have had a seizure, or that she shouldn’t have a good word — and “he was pissed I did,” she said. (As part of the MIT study, EG tested 98 percent of vocabulary.) These experiences were frustrating. As EG put it, they “pissed me off”. “They made so many statements and conclusions without any investigation,” she said.
Then EG met Fedorenko. “She didn’t have any preconceived notions of what I should or shouldn’t do,” she recalls. For Fedorenko, the opportunity to study brains like the EG is a scientist’s dream. EG is more than willing to help.
Fedorenko’s lab is working to elucidate the development of numerous brain regions thought to play a role in language learning and comprehension. The exact role of each has yet to be demystified, and exactly how the system emerged is a particularly tricky element of research. “We know very little about how the system develops,” Fedorenko said, because doing so requires scanning the brains of children between the ages of 1 and 3, whose language skills are still developing. “And we didn’t have the tools to probe kids’ brains at the time,” she said.
When EG showed up in her lab, Fedorenko realized it might be the perfect opportunity to understand how her remaining brain tissue reorganized cognitive tasks. “This case is like a cool window to ask these kinds of questions,” she said. “It’s just that sometimes you get these pearls that you’re trying to exploit.” It’s very rare for someone like EG to get himself poked and prodded by scientists.