The Middle-Aged Man Who Went His Whole Life With A Crushed Brain

By Heather Ramsey on Tuesday, February 16, 2016
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“My brain? It’s my second favorite organ!” —Miles Monroe, “Sleeper” (1973)

In A Nutshell

After experiencing some weakness in his left leg, a 44-year-old government worker in France underwent a CT scan and MRI that showed he had almost no brain. It had been crushed against his skull, most likely from a childhood surgery to treat hydrocephalus (water on the brain). Although the man’s IQ was slightly lower than normal, he married, had two kids, and led a normal life. Doctors were able to treat his leg weakness successfully with a brain shunt.

The Whole Bushel

In a case that is nothing short of amazing, doctors found that a 44-year-old man in France complaining of some weakness in his left leg was actually missing most of his brain. Although the man’s IQ was slightly lower than normal, he was married, had two kids, and had led a normal life up to this point.

He wasn’t mentally or physically challenged in any way other than the leg weakness he had recently developed.

When doctors checked his history, they learned that the unidentified man had suffered from hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, when he was six months old. Advanced scanning didn’t exist at that time, so his physicians inserted a shunt to drain the extra fluid.

Doctors removed the shunt when he was 14 because he was complaining of weakness in his left leg and general unsteadiness. With the shunt gone, his problems disappeared.

Given the man’s history and the recurrence of leg weakness at 44 years of age, his doctors ordered a computed tomography (CT) scan and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of his head. They discovered that his brain had been crushed into a thin sheet against his skull, most likely from the surgery he had as a child to treat hydrocephalus.

The scans showed that his skull was mostly occupied by two massive cerebral cavities, also called ventricles, that were filled with fluid. Usually, ventricles are small, holding just enough cerebrospinal fluid to cushion the brain.

“It is hard for me [to say] exactly the percentage of reduction of the brain, since we did not use software to measure its volume. But visually, it is more than a 50 percent to 75 percent reduction,” neurologist Lionel Feuillet told New Scientist. “The whole brain was reduced—frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes—on both left and right sides. These regions control motion, sensibility, language, vision, audition, and emotional and cognitive functions.”

Despite this, the man was extremely lucky. His condition is known as Dandy Walker complex. Although rare and more likely to occur in females, patients suffering from Dandy Walker often experience problems with their facial nerves as well as overall jerky muscle movements. They may also have enlarged skulls.

The man’s IQ was 75, below the average of 100, but not low enough to be considered a mental disability. His verbal IQ was 84 and his performance IQ was 70.

However, he was a well-functioning civil servant. So his brain had obviously adapted to his condition, even though doctors say it normally wouldn’t have been compatible with life. Doctors were able to treat his most recent episode of leg weakness successfully by reinstalling a brain shunt.

Show Me The Proof

New Scientist: Man with tiny brain shocks doctors
Science 2.0: The Mystery Of The Man With The Tiny Brain
Reuters: Tiny brain no obstacle to French civil servant