Researchers Find Brain Area That Controls 'Self'
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (May 8) -- Researchers studying patients with a rare degenerative
brain malady that can trigger dramatic changes in personality said Tuesday
they have pinpointed a part of the brain that controls a person's sense of
An area in the front portion of the brain's right frontal lobe appears to
harbor the sense of self -- in other words, personality, beliefs, likes and
dislikes, said Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of
Miller said he began looking into the anatomy of the self after noticing that
several of his patients with frontotemporal dementia, commonly known as
Pick's disease, underwent a stark transformation, changing their religious
and political beliefs, and altering their preferences in food and clothing.
Miller and several colleagues examined 72 people with Pick's disease, which
is similar to Alzheimer's disease. The researchers used advanced brain
imaging techniques to determine which areas of the brain had the most severe
degeneration. They also evaluated the patients for major changes in
personality, values and tastes.
Seven patients had undergone a dramatic change of self, the study found. Six
of those had their most severe abnormalities in the brain's right frontal
Of the 65 patients whose sense of self had been preserved, only one had the
most severe damage in the right frontal lobe.
Miller said the findings indicate that normal functioning of the right
frontal lobe is needed for people to maintain their sense of self. He also
said the findings demonstrate that a biological disorder can break down
well-established patterns of awareness and self-reflection.
"This is kind of a mysterious area in the brain," Miller said in an
interview. "The question is why in this non-language area do we see a loss of
self concepts. And the answer is: We don't know."
The study was presented during a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology
AN INCURABLE ILLNESS
Pick's disease is a slow, progressive, degenerative disease that eventually
progresses to death. The incurable ailment involves deterioration in mental
function caused by changes in brain tissue, including the presence of
abnormal bodies (Pick's bodies) in the nerve cells of affected areas of the
It strikes about 1 out of 100,000 people and is more common in women than
men. It usually begins between ages 40 and 60.
The change in self represents an early manifestation of the disease in some
patients. Later symptoms include losses in the ability to recognize objects
or people and language abilities.
One patient involved in the study was a 54-year-old woman described as a
charming, dynamic real estate agent who went from wearing expensive designer
apparel to choosing cheap clothing and gaudy beads and asking strangers the
cost of their clothing. Once a lover of French cuisine, she adopted a love of
fast food, particularly Taco Bell.
Another patient in the study was a 63-year-old woman described as a
well-dressed life-long political conservative who became an animal rights
activist who hated conservatives, dressed in T-shirts and baggy pants and
liked to say, "Republicans should be taken off the Earth."
The concept of self has intrigued philosophers, writers and scientists for
centuries, but only recently has the technology been available to study its
anatomical basis, the study noted.
It may be deflating to some people that the very essence of who they are --
including their beliefs and values -- is merely another anatomical process.
"I'm far from a philosopher and I'm a pretty simple guy," Miller said. "I
don't know. I'm so tied to the idea that we are the sum of all of our neural
connections that for me it's kind of my approach."
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