A bigger role for the little brain?

In the early 19th century, neuroanatomist Franz Joseph Gall believed that the cerebellum, the little attachment to the brain that packs half of the neurons in our head, is the “organ of the instinct of reproduction.” The bigger it is the stronger our libido.

But if you’ve ever lost your balance, or staggered home from a party after a few too many drinks, you’ll know what happens when it isn’t working properly.

The cerebellum (meaning little brain in Latin) has critical roles in controlling and co-ordinating movement. Without a cerebellum, you would have a hard time walking in a straight line or learning to ride a bike – functions that it performs automatically and unthinkingly.

But some researchers now believe that the humble little brain has roles beyond just fine-tuning movement: It may also contribute to higher mental functions such as thought and emotions.

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Meet Phineas Gage

The daguerreotype above  is believed to be the only known image of railroad worker Phineas Gage, who was enshrined in the history of neuroscience one day in September, 1848, when a large iron rod he was using to tamp gunpowder into a hole in a rock caused an explosion and was propelled through his brain.

Phineas_Gage_GageMillerPhoto2010-02-17_Unretouched_ColorThe photograph, which shows Gage holding the tamping iron, has been in the possession of photograph collectors Jack and Beverley Wilgus of Massachusetts for 30 years. They had believed it was of a whaler with his harpoon, but someone suggested it might in fact be Gage after it was uploaded onto Flickr. This led them to do some research, and they have written an article about the photograph, which will be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of the History of Neurosciences.

This un-watermarked image comes from a short article in the LA Times. The article states that the tamping iron “was successfully removed” from Gage’s head; in fact, it entered with such force that it was later recovered some 30 yards away, “smeared with blood and brain”. Gage famously survived, of course, but the damage to his frontal lobe led to severe personality changes and complete loss of social inhibitions, so that those who had known him before the accident said he had become a different person. He died 11 years later, after a series of severe epileptic convulsions.