Story of a return from madness
The new memoir, The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind, is a chilling look at the personality changes which can happen when a brain tumour strikes.
Not only does it give the story of a near-miracle recovery from several deadly tumours, an added dimension is that the patient herself is a highly specialised brain doctor who writes coolly and with authority on both the medical and personal aspects of her illness.
American neuroscientist Barbara Lipska was a grandmother who had already survived breast cancer and another melanoma when she discovered more melanomas had spread to her brain – and the tiny tumours were killing her.
Her story gives a window into the world of mental as well as physical illness as her tumours were in her brain’s frontal cortex, a complex area that deals with so much of what we consider “personality”. What is also so remarkable is how she so clearly remembers it all.
Due to her brain cancer, Lipska started to show symptoms she had studied in patients with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia. For example, she became paranoid and started to see conspiracies all around her, as well as losing her inhibitions as to what was socially appropriate. She would go for a run and get lost, act in extremely selfish and immature ways, be rude and aggressive.
She also, however, had a complete lack of awareness of her changed behaviour.
It must have been incredibly hard on Lipska’s family who fortunately had enough insight to understand their loved wife, mother and grandmother was ill and needed support and care, rather than condemnation.
Lipska’s experiences show how behaviour viewed as voluntary may actually have a compelling biochemical origin and reason.
Lipska, who has miraculously recovered, was (and still is) director of the human brain bank at the National Institute of Mental Health.
- The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery by Barbara K Lipska is published by Penguin Random House and retails for about R320.
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