Books

REVIEW | 'BRAINSTORM: Detective Stories From the World of Neurology'

Mysteries of the brain prove mesmerizing

This mesmerizing book by London neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan is a true gift to readers who may have brain injuries or disorders, and well beyond that population, to anyone interested in the brain and how its wounding shapes behavior. In the spirit of Oliver Sacks (though not quite as poetically), O’Sullivan tells the stories of several of her patients whose cases begin as mysteries, most of whom were eventually diagnosed with epilepsy or other brain diseases or injuries.

Perhaps the strangest is that of a quiet middle-aged janitor who starts seeing glimpses of the Seven Dwarfs scurrying across his peripheral vision. He and his wife are scared and puzzled: Is he psychotic? Coming down with Alzheimer’s?

In another arresting case, a teenage girl occasionally takes off in a breakneck sprint, and if she’s confined to a room, bangs into the walls and keeps running. Is she oddly rebellious? Is she trying to hurt herself? Does she have a brain tumor?

These are not easy cases to crack, but O’Sullivan and her colleagues do, over time. The doctor comes across as compassionate and humble; she describes misdiagnoses and failures, as well as breakthroughs and near-cures. Her patients emerge as complex and strong people whose resilience she celebrates. But the book’s most powerful presence is the human brain, which, as O’Sullivan stresses over and over again, remains, despite all the medical advancements of the past two centuries, a mystery deeper than the ocean.

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