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,
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. …