You Are So Lucky! Lessons from Neuroanatomy

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If you're reading this, you're extraordinarily lucky. Your eyes are tracking from left to right, and the information that they're taking in is being sent to your cerebral cortex via optic pathways, and all of the words you're reading are being processed automatically. You don't even have to think about it.

Your autonomic nervous system is making your blood circulate and your heart beat and your lungs breathe. You are getting small and constant signals from your neural pathways that your thalamus is directing to the appropriate part of the brain so that they can be processed.

You could have locked-in syndrome, where you would be aware of everything, but unable to move. One patient of my professor suffered from locked-in syndrome as a complication of childbirth. She could never hold her baby, and she could only communicate by blinking.

You could have Wallerian degeneration, in which the myelin sheath allowing your neural cells to communicate is worn down. This can lead to multiple sclerosis, among other diseases. You could have hypotonia or hypertonia (too little or too much muscle tone) because of a spinal nerve problem. Damage to any part of the extrapyramidal pathways could cause tremor, dystonia, or athestosis, which are all strange-looking movements that can take over your body at any time.

A lesion in the peripheral nervous system (anywhere outside of the brain and spinal cord) usually leads to loss of sensation and paralysis. Your face might constantly be in pain because of damage to the trigeminal nerve. Or you might be permanently unable to move half of your face because of damage to cranial nerve VII, the facial nerve.

You could look weird. You could be embarrassed. You could be in constant, agonizing pain. You could be unable to do the things you used to love. Your brain could destroy itself, leaving you with no sense of self and no memories. All because of the nervous system.

So, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "If you're breathing, there's more right with you than wrong." You're fortunate, and so am I. Every day I opened my notes for neuro, I realized how good I have it. We all do. I think it's important to be aware of what we have, and to appreciate it while it's here. This scene from Louie sums it up beautifully:

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


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