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Doctors Marvel at What People Can Do with Half a Brain

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There have been a number of news stories on the remarkable recovery of patients who have had half their brains removed, including the brain’s speech center, as a treatment for Rasmussen’s Syndrome, or Rasmussen’s encephalitis. These stories serve to highlight the miraculous capacity and flexibility of the human brain.

One such story, reported on ABC’s Good Morning America in July 2014, was about Christina Santhouse, who underwent brain surgery for Rasmussen’s encephalitis at the age of 9 in an effort to stop the daily seizures she suffered. Though the entire left hemisphere of her brain was removed via a hemispherectomy at John’s Hopkins Children’s Center, Santhouse has recovered well, developing into a healthy teen who is doing well in school.

Traumatic Treatment for a Devastating Disease

Rasmussen’s encephalitis, a form of epilepsy, is an autoimmune disease that attacks the brain, damaging brain cells. Seizures are one symptom of this rare disease, which has affected fewer than 1,000 people in the US. Rasmussen’s typically occurs in children, and the most effective treatment is a hemispherectomy—a surgical procedure in which the affected hemisphere of the brain is removed.

Other Cases Illustrate Brain’s Capacity for Recovery

In a February 2013 story from the Huffington Post, it was reported that Grace Wohlberg’s successful hemispherectomy for treatment of her Rasmussen’s encephalitis was performed by Gary Mathern, MD, a professor of pediatric neurosurgery at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“Grace has done remarkably well,” Dr Mathern reported to the Huffington Post. “Every time I get a chance to see her, she’s walking stronger, she’s more engaged. And so she’s done quite well from a post-take-out-half-your-brain kind of scenario. You’d be surprised what people can do with half a brain.”

A 2002 article in The Telegraph, covered the story of Brusa, a 7-year-old girl who’d had half her brain removed at age 3 as treatment for Rasmussen’s syndrome, yet was able to become fluent in 2 languages—Dutch and Turkish—within 4 years after her surgery. Johannes Borgstein, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Rotterdam Hospital in Holland who later treated Brusa for tonsillitis, was amazed at her recovery. He reported that her sight had been somewhat impaired by the surgery, but her hearing was intact, and her brain’s ability to acquire language post-surgery was notable.

“It was amazing. I had to tell my students to forget all the neurophysiological theory they were learning,” he reported to The Telegraph. “If this little girl could achieve so much with only half a brain, what could we not do with a complete one?”

Source: ABC News, The Telegraph, Huffington Post