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Henry Molaison: Without a Memory, Essay Example

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Words: 1540

Essay

Abstract

Henry Molaison was a man that caused a ripple effect through the medical and psychology fields during his time on Earth.  He was unlike any other living human being and was the epicenter for research and development of practice, theory and advancements between brain function and how memory works.  Henry Molaison, better known as H.M., had his hippocampi, parahippocampalgyrus, and amygdalae removed to prevent the onslaught of epilepsy.  The results of the procedure were not predicted and from that surgery spawned great psychological gains in the science and specifically in the branch of psychology called neuropsychology.

Overview of Henry Molaison

Who is H.M.

Henry Molaison was born in early 1926 and died at the age of 82.  He could recognize his father’s name and knew his mother emigrated from Ireland before meeting his father.  He could detail the impacts of the stock market crash on his childhood and could event describe the world at war during the Second World War.  While he was of age to serve during the war he had a peculiar distinction between himself and the rest of his peers at this age he was diagnosed with epilepsy.  Epilepsy is characterized by the severity and amount of seizures the patient has.  In the world of medicine today, epilepsy can be controlled, not cured, by medication.  This medication controls the hypersynchronous neuronal activity which overstimulates and caused the person to go into an epileptic seizure.  Hypersynchronous neuronal activityis the overstimulation of the rhythmic or cyclical repetitions of activity in the central nervous system. (brainfacts.org, 2013)Molaison had epileptic seizures during his entire life and it was not contained to a particular stage in his childhood, his environmental circumstances or other health factors.  The one significant event that occurred was during a bicycle ride where he crashed and could have suffered a traumatic brain injury.  While this is not substantiated it could be a contributing factor to his story.

While medicine was not as advanced as it is during the current time period, not all epilepsy can be controlled by medicine.  While some forms of epilepsy are controlled by medication there are still cases where surgery is required.  Surgery was thought to be the only answer as his symptoms seemed to progress from partial seizures shortly after age of seven to full epileptic seizures in his teens and twenties.  This is where the history of Henry Molaison transforms into the historical, medical and psychological significance of H.M.

Surgical Procedure

When Henry Molaison was twenty seven he underwent a surgery to eradicate his epilepsy symptoms.  He went into the surgery to have his hippocampi, parahippocampalgyrus, and amygdalae removed.  These areas of the brain were thought to have stored the areas that were overstimulated and would cause the epileptic episodes (Carey, 2008).  Prior to his surgery, a neurosurgeon named William Beecher Scoville, localized his epilepsy to the left and right medial temporal lobes.  From this analysis the removal of the hippocampi, parahippocampalgyrus, and amygdalae were thought to be the remedy to Molaison’s illness.  Scoville completed the procedure and with all intents and purposes the procedure was successful.  Henry Molaison no longer had epileptic seizures.  While there were no longer seizures there were other issues that became apparent.  These problems occurred shortly afterward when Molaison started to have severe amnesia of recent events.  The amnesia primarily focused on semantic or explicit memory.  That being said he could not form new memories.  The other significant portion of this amnesia was the fact that his procedural memory was intact as was his working memory.  He could develop new motor skills, utilize the motor skills the follow days and weeks but when it came to remember how he learned them he could not recall that information.

His memory was forever changed in the fact that new memories were never going to exist and old memories would potentially fade.  This significance of this surgery and ultimately the results of the removal of the key portions of the brain lie in the advancement, understanding and knowledge gained from the life and interactions with Henry Molaison.

Significance

H.M.’s life after the surgery impacted science, psychology, medicineand potentially humanities understanding of how and why memories are formed.  His surgery not only shed light on amnesia, memory, memory loss and impairment but also on how the brain functioned and what areas of the brain contributed or owned certain functions of the body and mind.  Areas that were connected by the world of psychology and medicine were drawn apart by H.M.’s resulting effects.  His neural and cognitive organization of memory unveiled how our brains work in conjunction with memory and memory loss (Hilts, 1996).  Areas such as, the connection between memories of events and memories of procedural tasks and that of how epilepsy was triggered by the same areas that housed explicit memory were all taken into consideration now and new studies commenced based upon the results of his surgery.  His contributions attributed to unparalleled gains in amnesia and its impacts, motor skills and how they are learned and retained, spatial memory, and memory arrangement.  Henry Molaison gave his life to science without fully understanding what his contributions would entail.  He went in knowing he would forever change but came out never knowing he did.

With Molaison’s anterograde amnesia, or his ability to form new memories, provided the first contribution to amnesia and its study and understanding.  Prior to the surgery there were theories that the particular area that was removed from Molaison’s brain called the hippocampus had the primary function of creating and storing new memories. Without H.M.’s surgery and newly found empirical evidence there would not have been a way to connect the direct association between the hippocampus and newly formed memories.  This was a breakthrough in the understanding of each area of the brain and what it attributed to regarding functionality and purpose.

While the studies were continuing there were also gains in understanding what memories were impacted and how they were related.  H.M. could remember certain types of information in great detail but could not remember others.  For example, he could remember headlines from the newspapers about WWII but could not remember if he had a visitor from the day before.  It was not only about the significant milestones of the previous days but there were also other documented times during his time at the nursing home where he could not remember his room or which bed he was supposed to sleep in (Turner, 2010).  The significance of other areas extended into knowing that certain functionality and memory ability remained and what part of the brain remained.  This included the ability to develop new motor skills and retain those skills.  It was thought that the motor skills and other short term motor skills resided in the same place in the brain.  Other studies pointed to an area called the striatum.  Once the areas of the brain that were thought to hold all memory reserve was removed it was found that his ability to learn new motor skills and the retention of those skills resided here in the striatum.   An interesting intersection on how memories are formed and how they are retrieved was concluded from H.M.’s life.  During his life there was a connection between the part of the brain that created the memory and that of where the memory was forever stored.  This provided a significant distinction between declarative memory and non-declarative memory.  That is the knowing what and when as opposed to knowing how.  His studies also point to the necessity of the hippocampus to retrieve information from the stored location in the short term but over time there is a separation between the need of the hippocampus and memory retrieval.  As time passes there is less reliance on the hippocampus to retrieve memories and other parts of the brain are necessitated to take on those functions.  This leaves the hippocampus functioning on short-term memory retrieval.  This would not have been know unless H.M. signed the waiver for surgery in 1953.

H.M. died in 2008 but his contributions to science did not cease.  His brain was provided to science and in 2009 it was frozen and dissected into 2,401 sections (Costandi, 2010).  Each section perfectly separated from the next.  Studies will continue as the information is provided for scientists around the world to study and exam so that they can also further the advents of science and the understanding how the brain functions.

Conclusion

Henry Molaison’s tragedies in surgery led to a life of abundant offerings to the scientific community.  The understandings he provided gave a greater depth of knowledge in treating and preventing diseases impacting the memory.  This also increased the awareness and ability to mitigate the effects of epilepsy among other patients around the world.  H.M. gave unprecedented information between the connections of the brain, how it stored memories, the retrieval of those memories, amnesia and how it worked.

References

Brainfacts.org. (2013).Patient zero: what we learned from h.m.The Kavli Foundation. Retrieved from: http://blog.brainfacts.org/2013/05/patient-zero-what-we-learned-from-h-m/#.UlPx0o3VB2A

Carey, B., (2008). H.M. an unforgettable amnesiac, dies at 82.The New York Times.  Retrieved from :http://web.mit.edu/bnl/pdf/HM_NYT_Obit.pdf

Costandi, M. (2010).One man’s continuing contribution to science of memory.The Dana Foundation. Retrieved: http://dana.org/news/features/detail.aspx?id=29536

Hilts, P. (1996).Memory’s ghost: the nature of memory and the strange tale of mr. m. Touchstone. New York. NY. Print.

Turner, M. (2010).Memory as a life’s work.The Dana Foundation. Retrieved: http://www.dana.org/news/features/detail.aspx?id=26086

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