Phineas Gage: A Classic Case in Neuroscience

The human brain is like a Pandora Box. Despite the advances in Medical Imaging techniques like fMRI, the functions of different regions of the brain is still a mystery in neuroscience.

In the 19th century when medical imaging techniques were at an embryonic stage, understanding brain functionalities was a nightmare for scientists. Studying the brain of patients was the most reliable method available then to understand the different functioning of the cerebral cortex areas.

Phineas Gage, a railroad worker, became a legend in the field of neuroscience. His brain sustained an iron rod that drove completely through his head. Although he survived the injury miraculously, his behavior underwent a complete transformation. This paved way for neuroscientists to understand the functioning of the brain.

The Story Of Phineas Gage

In September 1848, Gage was excavating rock using a tamping iron in Cavendish, United States. A premature explosion during the excavation drove the iron into his cheek which then penetrated into his head before landing a few feets away from him. The iron rod was 1.1 m long and 6 mm in diameter and weighed 6 kg.

Source: Science

The injury made him partially blind and he fell unconscious due to bleeding. However, as he started to regain consciousness, Dr. Harlow, the doctor treating him, realized that his behavior has undergone a drastic change.

Gage had an engaging social life and he was happily married. After the fatal accident, he allegedly became a jerk.

Since his memory was intact, he was able to travel and move around normally. However, his personality underwent a massive change as he no longer had social inhibitions. Some of his friends described post-accident Gage as a ‘psychopath’.

Phineas Gage traveled the country with the tamping iron and he died 12 years later due to epilepsy.

The Aftermath

Cerebral Cortex is typically the grey matter in the brain. The German anatomist Korbinian Brodmann divided the cerebral cortex into 52 different areas histologically using Nissl Staining Method.

Areas of Cerebral Cortex
The Different Areas of Brain. The brown color represents the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
Credits: John Wiley & Sons

Since the prefrontal cortex of Phineas Gage had sustained a brain injury, neuroscientists concluded that this area of the brain is responsible for the personality, ethical values and social behavior of a person.

This simple understanding made the neuroscientists question further on the functioning of various regions of the brain and thus, opened up new frontiers of research in neuroscience.

Word of Caution

Now that you know about the side effects of frontal brain injury, you should be careful while driving and running on slippery grounds. There is always a chance of accidents while driving or tipping over. Stay safe.


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