John Patrick Thomas
John Patrick Thomas

How One Mysterious Medical Case Helped Map the Brain

John Patrick Thomas
John Patrick Thomas

On April 11, 1861, Dr. Pierre Paul Broca examined a man in the surgical wing of the Bicêtre hospital near Paris. The 51-year-old patient had gangrene all along his right leg, his entire right side was paralyzed, and he was nearly blind. When Broca asked about the origin of the man’s illness, the patient answered, “tan, tan,” with a wave of his left hand. It was the only thing he could say. Strangely, though, his mouth, tongue, and voice box were in working order. His hearing was good, and he understood what other people were saying.

The man’s name was Louis Victor Leborgne, but everyone called him Tan. He had been admitted to the hospital at age 30 after losing the ability to speak. Ten years later, he also started to lose the ability to use the limbs on his right side. This led to the gangrene, which landed him in Broca’s care.

The doctor considered the best treatment, mulling over Leborgne’s language problem. Broca had recently attended a scientific meeting where the topic was whether intellectual functions like language could be traced to specific locations in the brain. Another doctor there was convinced that the brain’s frontal lobes handled speech. He’d issued a challenge: If anyone found a case in which speech faltered but comprehension and other forms of communication functioned, and no lesion in the frontal lobes was found, he would renounce his position.

In light of the challenge, Broca took special care to determine whether Leborgne was mentally impaired generally, or if the problem was limited to language. The next day, he asked Tan how long he had been there and got the same answer as usual. The third day, he asked again. Leborgne had had enough, and uttered the only other phrase he seemed capable of producing when angry or frustrated: “Sacré nom de Dieu!” (“Goddammit!”).

A few days later, Leborgne died and Broca performed an autopsy on his body. The patient’s brain contained a wide area of fluid-filled decay, but by carefully inspecting the tissue at different locations, Broca deduced that a lesion had originally occurred in the second or third fold of the left frontal lobe and then slowly progressed outward, causing Leborgne’s symptoms. The language problem had come before his other impairments, and it had started in the left frontal lobe. Speech, it seemed, was located there. Broca presented Leborgne’s brain and explained his findings at a meeting with his scientific colleagues.

Six months later, Broca silenced any remaining skeptics. He was called in to see an 84-year-old man with a broken leg who had, months earlier, lost the ability to speak but not the ability to understand. He could say a handful of words, including “lelo” for his name, Lelong. When he died 12 days later, Broca found a lesion in his brain in the exact same place as Leborgne’s. A new era of brain research was born, and scientists began mapping brain functions.

The affected area, in the lower part of the left frontal gyrus, is now known as Broca’s Area. These days, if a patient suddenly loses language, doctors know to check there for a brain injury. The brains of Leborgne and Lelong were preserved and can still be seen at the Musée Dupuytren, a museum of medical curiosities in Paris, where their importance speaks for itself.


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NASA, Getty Images
Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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