Brain Power

Article excerpt

Neuropsychiatrist Leopold Hofstatter followed his hunches to learn how the mind works. Now, scientists are studying the mysteries of his brain.

ON Dr. Leopold Hofstatter's desk is the first model of a brain he ever made - a clumsy plaster-of-paris version of that enigmatic, three-pound mass.

He made it in 1923 when he was in medical school at the University of Vienna. At that time, speculations that the human mind, our individual essence, arose out of a glob of inter-cranial tissue were considered sacrilegious. Most people believed that the miracle of consciousness was just that - a miracle, a spirit breathed into the infant, separate from it s earthly encasement. "But I had a hunch that the anatomy of the brain held the answers to the personality," Hofstatter said. "All my life I have had these hunches. They would awaken me at night and gnaw at me. . ." He gives an unmistakably European shrug, a there-it-is, what-is-a-man-to-do? shrug. "So I studied neurology and psychiatry, and not law as my grandfather would have wished." Given his own lifelong, single-minded study of the brain, there's a certain poetic justice in the fact that Leopold Hofstatter's own brain is now a subject of great interest to a new generation of neurologists. "I am of interest because I am so old," he says wryly. Because he is so old and so keen. Because, at 94, the words march factory-file off his lips. Because he still performs on the piano at churches in this area and still does research at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health, a research arm of the School of Medicine of the University of Missouri. Because he has just completed a fascinating proposal for studying how the absence of a mother's nurturing in a child's earliest years may impede the structural development of the brain in the area governing psychosocial behavior. For years, child psychologists have known that children denied the stimulation of mothering in infancy and toddler years often had behavioral difficulties later. But why, anatomically speaking, is this so? Does the psychological problem have a physiological basis? Hofstatter proposes that the deprivation of mothering results in an actual measurable neural deficiency in brain area 11, the part of the frontal lobe long known to mediate social behavior. He's In Alzheimer's Study The question that Hofstatter embodies is every bit as intriguing as the one he is currently postulating. Put in layman's terms, the question is: Why does he have all his marbles when perhaps 50 percent of the population over 85 is suffering from the marked loss of cognitive function associated with disease? To assume that genes alone would predetermine the brain's impairment in such a huge portion of our elderly population is, in Hofstatter's words, "a highly impoverished explanation." Hofstatter is part of the control group in an Alzheimer's research study begun in 1979 at the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Washington University. The object of the study, says its director, Dr. Leonard Berg, is to compare what happens neurologically in healthy and unhealthy aging, to measure the relative loss of neurons (the brain's main type of cell) and of function via EEGs, imaging and memory and reason testing. The big hunch of this generation's neurologists, the one that has great bearing for all of us, is that environmental stimuli play a much greater role than previously suspected on the early development and even on the healthy aging of the brain. In other words, who we are and who we end up as may have as much to do with private history as genetics. Many neurologists theorize that brain development is not complete at birth as previously thought; it is not a genetically preordained configuration. Genetic underpinnings provide the general guidelines for development. But some of the myriad patterns of neuronal connections out of which the individual intelligence emerges are formed postnatally, depending on sensory input, on individual exposures. …