To say that the human brain is complex is a massive understatement. This organ, despite weighing just 3 pounds (1.36 kg), contains over 100 billion neurons, or signaling units. These neurons are responsible for receiving messages and making sense out of them. The messages are sent to various parts of the brain, which in turn control everything we do. When you think of all the tiny actions that make up just one day of your life, it's clear that this hardworking organ is underappreciated.
In fact, we may not appreciate just how much the brain can do for a person until something happens to it. When diseases and injuries occur elsewhere in the body, it's somewhat easier to accept and deal with them. A cut requires a Band-Aid, a broken leg requires a cast and crutches, and bad eyesight requires glasses. A neurological condition, however, involves confronting an array of frustrating and bewildering symptoms that affect our most basic functions, including thought, behavior, memory and speech. Some of these conditions force us to realize just how little we know about this complex organ and its workings.
Neurological conditions can be misunderstood for a variety of reasons. Some of the symptoms are off-putting or upsetting to observers, which creates a stigma of the condition and isolates the person suffering from it. Persons experiencing some of these symptoms may have a hard time identifying that there is indeed a disorder causing the odd effects in the body. In other cases, doctors simply don't yet know what causes the disorder or what they can do about it.
A list of just five misunderstood neurological conditions may seem too short; after all, even with mountains of research on the brain we'll probably never unravel all its mysteries. Yet these five conditions illuminate some of the most interesting things that we don't understand about this complex organ. Go to the next page to find out about a neurological condition that doesn't even seem to have anything to do with the brain upon first glance.
5: Sleep Disorders
When you can't sleep, you don't automatically think it's your brain's fault. Instead, you may blame that afternoon cappuccino. Many sleep disorders, however, have the brain to blame. One example is narcolepsy, a condition in which the brain can't maintain regular sleep cycles due to abnormalities in the neurons. As a result, a person with narcolepsy may not be able to sleep at night, and then during the day, he or she involuntarily falls asleep. To the outside observer, this may look like laziness or a late night.
While many college students trying to stay awake during an 8 a.m. class after a long night out may try to claim a case of narcolepsy, there's a little more to it than the desire to fall asleep at odd times. Narcolepsy is also distinguished by cataplexy, or sudden loss of muscle control, as well as vivid hallucinations and brief paralysis. However, the first symptoms to appear are those subtle signs that a person is tired, and as a result, many people don't understand that they're experiencing the onset of a neurological disorder.
Another sleep disorder linked to the brain is restless legs syndrome, a condition in which people lie down only to experience itching, tingling or some other odd sensation in the limbs that's only abated by movement. When your legs feel weird, you may not immediately wonder about what's going on in your brain. Indeed, some skeptics say this condition isn't rooted in the brain at all, but rather in the wallets of drug manufacturers eager to put you on prescription medication [sources: Woloshin, Schwartz; Hoffman]. Still, descriptions of the symptoms appear in 17th-century medical writings, and scientists currently believe the symptoms can be attributed to abnormal levels of dopamine and iron in the brain [source: Hoffman].
On the next page, we'll investigate a condition that's commonly confused with a normal part of the aging process.
If you've ever tried to select a birthday card for someone even slightly over the hill, then you know that most of the birthday-card humor for this age group involves forgetfulness. Misplaced keys, forgotten doctor's appointments and trouble remembering the names of all the grandchildren can be viewed as accepted parts of growing older. However, sometimes these lapses in memory are considered normal when in fact they indicate a dementia such as Alzheimer's -- and Alzheimer's is not a normal part of the aging process.
Studies have shown that most people understand that Alzheimer's involves memory loss and mostly affects older people [sources: Queensland University of Technology, University of Michigan]. However, Alzheimer's disease is more than just memory loss, as other brain functions, including movement, language and behavior, are eventually affected. And a study conducted by the University of Michigan found that some people see Alzheimer's disease and memory loss as just a normal thing that older people go through.
A misunderstanding like that can lead to confusion about when to see a doctor about the symptoms. Indeed, the person suffering the symptoms may be reluctant to learn that the experience has a name and a degenerative prognosis. This sort of stigma and confusion about the condition can delay diagnosis. While the only true way to diagnose Alzheimer's is after death, when doctors can examine the brain for the presence of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, prompt examination can rule out other neurological disorders that can be treated with medications. Additionally, an early diagnosis also allows the person with Alzheimer's to be involved in planning decisions regarding the disorder.
This condition may be misunderstood because even doctors aren't exactly sure about its cause. Scientists know what's going on in the brain -- they can see the abnormal clumps of proteins and the changes in the myelin that coats the synapses, among other things -- but it's hard to tell if these are the cause or the effect of the disorder.
Turn the page for a neurological condition that's often attributed to the tomfoolery of troublesome kids.
Bart Simpson got into a lot of mischief at school, but only a few things got him in trouble in the world outside Springfield. One of those things involved an episode in which Bart claimed he couldn't take a test because he had Tourette's syndrome; to prove his case, Bart called his teacher a witch, barked and twitched. A letter from a young boy with Tourette's led the animators to change the episode, one of the few instances in which they did so [source: Cronin].
Still, Tourette's can frequently be a Hollywood punchline, particularly after a character releases a string of profanities in an inappropriate situation. In fact, very few people with Tourette's syndrome have this particular tic, which is known as coprolalia. Rather, Tourette's syndrome is made up of a variety of involuntary or semi-voluntary tics that may include repetitive movements or sounds. Tourette's frequently occurs in conjunction with disorders such as ADHD and OCD [source: Kenney et al].
To the uninitiated observer, however, some of these tics can appear to be kids misbehaving. Teachers may not understand why a child needs to burp or grunt during a classroom lesson, and parents may not understand why one child can't stop touching the other one. Though most people with Tourette's find the tics decline during early adulthood, you may not understand why an adult professional is constantly jerking his neck around. However, Tourette's involves abnormalities in the basal ganglia area of the brain. The exact cause is unknown, but chemicals in that area likely cause uncomfortable urges and sensations that can only be relieved by the tic.
People with Tourette's may experience very minor tics; such mild cases usually don't require treatment. However, other major, distracting tics can affect the sufferer's social functioning and self-esteem.
People with the next disorder often say that they're concerned how it will affect their everyday interactions. Go to the next page to find out what this disorder is.
The beginning of a new romantic relationship is a time full of excitement and discovery. People share things about themselves, eventually revealing more and more as they feel trust with their new boyfriend or girlfriend. However, there are a few things that people can sometimes be hesitant to reveal, such as the existence of nude photographs on the Internet. That may not compare to the fear, however, of telling someone you're falling in love with that he or she might eventually see you convulsing on the floor, twitching and jerking unconsciously for several seconds or several minutes.
This is but one of the social factors that a person with epilepsy must consider. Epilepsy is a disorder that occurs when seizures are unprovoked; for no reason, the neurons in the brain start firing all at once, overwhelming the brain. Seizures take many forms, from a brief loss of consciousness to jerking and flailing to an inability to move.
This is a condition that doctors simply don't understand yet. While some cases of epilepsy are caused by a brain injury and some cases are genetic, many times doctors just don't know why a person starts seizing. Since it often lacks a clear cause, epilepsy has sometimes borne the stigma of mental illness, as opposed to a neurological condition [source: Wilner]. For this reason, doctors sometimes refer to the condition as a seizure disorder, instead of as epilepsy.
And while doctors can provide treatments that will help control the seizures, there exists a sense of unpredictability, as a seizure could still occur at any moment. This can affect the quality of life for epileptic people, as well as cause misunderstandings with those around them. Some jobs may not be feasible for people with epilepsy, either because of the distance (people who experience seizures aren't allowed to drive in some states), the hours (one common seizure trigger is sleep deprivation, making the graveyard shift a less than desirable option), or the cognitive skills involved (antiseizure medications often have disabling cognitive side effects). These considerations may affect every decision, from whether a person can take a bath without losing consciousness or whether a person can take care of a baby without going into convulsions.
There's one more misunderstood neurological condition on this list, and it's a hotly debated topic. Go to the next page to learn more.
In 1988, Dustin Hoffman portrayed Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant, in the film "Rain Man." As a result, many thought that autism involved the ability to count cards and remember every airline crash. However, Babbitt represented only one point on the autism spectrum. Autism, a neurological disorder that appears in young children, has many different manifestations.
It's this vast spectrum of autistic conditions that can lead to misunderstanding. While some children with autism can recite airline crashes like Babbitt, others with autism seem to live in a world all their own. Some children focus on one activity or object with intense focus. Doctors can use a set of cues, including impaired social interaction, language development and certain behaviors to determine if a child is autistic.
As the number of autism diagnoses rises, parents want to know what causes the condition. Here we step into a minefield of misunderstandings. Scientists simply aren't sure right now, though it seems that both genetics and the environment play a role. One controversial theory is that childhood vaccinations play a role; actress/model Jenny McCarthy has become one of the many public faces in this debate, as she believes that children receive too many vaccinations in too short a period of time [source: Brady, Dahle]. Most researchers say there is no link between vaccines and autism [source: Vedantam]. In 2008, conservative radio talk show host Michael Savage made headlines by saying that autism was the result of lazy parenting, describing almost every child with autism as a "brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out" [source: Steinberg].
While the debate over the cause of autism rages, there's also differing opinions on how to treat a child with autism. Again, McCarthy made the news for claiming that her son made strides with a diet that eliminated wheat and gluten, though some doctors remain skeptical of the diet's impact [source: Good Morning America]. While there is no cure for autism, doctors use a combination of therapies and programs to try to remedy certain symptoms.
For more on these misunderstood brain conditions, see the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Beers, Mark H., ed. "The Merck Manual of Medical Information. Second Home Edition." Merck Research Laboratories. 2003.
- Bourland, Patrick. "Tourette's is still largely misunderstood." Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Sept. 23, 2005. (Aug. 20, 2008)http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/241926_tourette23.html
- Brady, Jonann and Stephanie Dahle. "Celeb Couple to Lead 'Green Vaccine' Rally." ABC News. June 4, 2008. (Aug. 20, 2008)http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/OnCall/story?id=4987758
- "Can a New Diet Help Autistic Kids?" Good Morning America. Oct. 15, 2007. (Aug. 20, 2008)http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/TenWays/story?id=3730135&page=1
- Cronin, Mary Elizabeth. "Tourette's Isn't Funny, Bart Simpson -- Renton Boy Seeks Network Apology. Feb. 1, 1993. (Aug. 20, 2008)http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19930201&slug=1683046
- Devinsky, Orrin. "Epilepsy Patient & Family Guide. Third Edition." Demos Medical Publishing. 2008.
- Hitti, Miranda. "Alzheimer's Diagnosis Often Delayed." WebMD. 2007. (Aug. 20, 2008) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/553638
- Hoffman, Matthew. "Night Walker: Restless Legs Syndrome." WebMD. May 20, 2008. (Aug. 20, 2008) http://www.webmd.com/brain/features/night-walker-restless-legs-syndrome
- Judd, Sandra J., ed. "Brain Disorders Sourcebook, Second Edition." Health Reference Series. Omnigraphics. 2005.
- Kenney, Christopher, Sheng-Han Kuo, Joohi Jimenez-Shahed. "Tourette's Syndrome." American Family Physician. March 1, 2008.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Autism Fact Sheet." July 21, 2008. (Aug. 20, 2008) http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm
- Queensland University of Technology. "Study Outlines Misconceptions About Alzheimers." May 20, 2008. (Aug. 20, 2008)http://www.accessibility.com.au/news/study-outlines-misconceptions-about-alzheimers
- Steinberg, Jacques. "Savage Stands by Autism Remarks." New York Times. July 22, 2008. (Aug. 22, 2008)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/22/business/media/22sava.html
- University of Michigan. "Misconceptions about Alzheimer's Varies Among Races, Survey Suggests." ScienceDaily. Sept. 19, 2007. (Aug. 20, 2008)http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2007/09/070918174007.htm
- Vedantam, Shankar. "Fight Over Vaccine-Autism Link Hits Court." Washington Post. June 10, 2007. (Aug. 20, 2008)http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/09/AR2007060901344.html
- Wilner, Andrew N. "Epilepsy 199 Questions: A Doctor Responds to His Patients' Questions. Third Edition." Demos Medical Publishing. 2008.
- Woloshin, Steven and Lisa M. Schwartz. "Giving Legs to Restless Legs: A Case Study of How the Media Helps Make People Sick." PLoS Medicine. April 2006. (Aug. 20, 2008) http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0030170