My Strange Brain

The documentary series exploring rare neurological conditions concludes. This instalment focuses on three people who have suffered brain damage that has left them at the mercy of their compulsions and sent their behaviour careering out of control. What would make a respected chiropractor abandon his career to a life of artistic mania? How can a lightning strike leave a successful surgeon overwhelmed by a mysterious force beyond his control? And why would a normal wife and mother change overnight into a woman with just one thing on her mind?

Heather Howland lives with husband Andy in a normal suburban house, but their marriage is far from conventional. For two years, Heather has been sleeping with a number of other men, and is completely unable to control her sex drive. Even a trip to the shops can prove disastrous, with longsuffering Andy often having to go looking for his wife to prevent a potential encounter. “It takes over my whole thought pattern,” says Heather. “It’s all-consuming.” So why has her behaviour undergone such a dramatic change?

Heather’s story began two years ago when she suffered a sudden brain haemorrhage. She was rushed to hospital for life-saving surgery, but slipped into a coma that lasted ten days. As she lay unconscious, Andy began to notice a change in his wife’s behaviour. When she eventually came around, she would proposition him for sex at all hours – even while other family members and medics sat nearby.

After leaving hospital, Heather’s life was governed by a condition specialists call hypersexuality. Neurologist Dr Alice Flaherty of Harvard Medical School explains that the disorder exists where two factors are present in a sufferer – a big libido and the loss of a ‘braking system’ in the brain. Heather’s haemorrhage damaged the parts of the brain responsible for keeping her sexual urges under control. “Everything needs a braking system,” says Dr Flaherty. “Where there’s none, it’s usually a disaster.”

The condition has left Heather’s life in tatters. Desperate for help, she and Andy are heading to Boston in the US to meet an expert in the neurology of compulsion. Can a revolutionary new treatment help Heather regain control of her urges in order to save her 15-year marriage?

The brain’s braking system does not regulate just sexual desires. Nineteen years ago, Jon Sarkin, then a successful chiropractor, suffered a trauma that changed his life forever. During what should have been a routine operation to correct a ringing in his ear, he suffered a massive stroke. When he emerged from his coma, he was overwhelmed with the desire to paint.

Nearly 20 years later, art is still the only thing on Jon’s mind. “I crawl out of bed, take the bus to my studio and draw all day,” he says. “Then I go home and draw some more.” Jon suffers from a rare, incurable condition called sudden artistic output – an affliction that has had a devastating effect on his family. “After I got sick, I became a different person,” he says.

Dr Chris Smith of Cambridge University has it that the brain performs a balancing act between what is correct behaviour and what is not. “It’s a bit like a cognitive see-saw,” he says. In most people, two competing systems exist in a delicate equilibrium: while the reward system drives towards desire, the braking system works to inhibit inappropriate or dangerous behaviour. In Jon’s case, the stability has been destroyed such that inhibitions no longer exist and he acts on impulses alone. Jon now paints at least ten pictures per day, and estimates that he has completed in the region of 70,000 pieces in all.

Elsewhere, the documentary examines the case of Tony Cicora – an orthopaedic surgeon whose life was turned upside down by a freak accident. After he was struck by lightning, Tony gave up his career in favour of studying the piano – an instrument he had previously never played. Now, 15 years after his accident, he is due to perform his ‘Lightning Sonata’ for the very first time.

The documentary series exploring rare neurological conditions continues. This instalment focuses on four people who suffer from brain disorders that have weakened their grip on reality, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction and leaving them with a distorted sense of the world.

The human senses are under a constant barrage of information, and it is the job of the brain to organise this information in such a way as to understand the world. Damage to certain parts of the brain can play havoc with a person’s perception of what is real and what is not. In the case of Charles Hutson, such damage has left him caught up in an imaginary world of international conspiracy and fraud.

In March 2003, Charles, then a successful engineer, was run over while attempting to stop a robbery at a jewellery shop. When he awoke from a three-week coma, his physical injuries mended quickly, but the brain damage he had sustained caused lasting problems. As Charles began to rebuild his life, his memories of the event – and of his life before the incident – were left in disarray. He is now convinced that he is part of a jewellery fraud case that also involves MI6 – and that he is being targeted by the secret services. “It’s very tough for Charles,” explains his wife. “The more he repeats that version [of events], the more his brain thinks that’s what really happened.”

According to Dr Chris Smith of Cambridge University, Charles is displaying classic symptoms of the rare memory disorder confabulation. “Confabulation is where patients invent stories to explain missing links in memories,” he says. “They don’t realise that they are doing this.”

But Charles’s delusions go beyond conspiracy; he also remembers that he and Einstein discovered the theory of relativity together, and that he walked with dinosaurs – though he does accept that these more extreme memories must be a symptom of his condition. Nevertheless, his disorder has had a devastating effect on his life – he can no longer work, and needs 24-hour support from a team of carers.

While Charles is left living in a world distorted by false memories, the American Midwest is the backdrop for a more sinister form of confabulation. Kathy Waxman has been married to her husband, Sheldon, for 31 years, but she no longer recognises him. Seventeen years ago, she began to think that the man living in her house was not Sheldon – and that someone had taken her real partner away. She regularly tries to throw her husband out of the house and refuses to talk to him. “I’m not Sheldon,” he says. “I’m somebody else to her.” But things have not always been so hostile between the couple – Kathy remembers every detail of the beginning of their relationship with great fondness. So why is she gripped with such a devastating delusion?

Professor William Hirstein believes Kathy is suffering form a rare perception disorder known as Capgras syndrome. “The patient comes to believe that people who have been close to them have been replaced by impostors,” he explains. “The patient looks at his father, feels nothing whatsoever and then confabulates a reason for this.”

Kathy’s disorder cannot be traced back to a particular trauma, but one theory suggests that it is caused by an abnormal balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. When this complex system starts to misfire, it can lead to symptoms of neuropsychiatric illness and delusion. But there may yet be hope for Kathy and Sheldon. In Chicago, pioneering research has identified a possible treatment that may help Capgras sufferers – but before its effectiveness can be tested, doctors must first convince Kathy that she needs medical intervention. “I just miss the companionship of a wife,” says Sheldon.

Elsewhere, the documentary examines the case of Philip Hornby who is unable to identify living things, including faces, animals, fruit and vegetables – despite normal intelligence and vision; and Terence Malsom, who is haunted by terrifying hallucinations.

This brand-new documentary series explores unusual neurological conditions. The first instalment profiles four people with different disorders that affect their memories and sleeping patterns. One woman was struck down by a virus that has erased all her recollections of the last 20 years, while another woman is unable to record new memories. The film also meets a man who loses his muscle tone every time he experiences heightened emotions.

For Mohammad Doud, each day is a constant battle to stay awake. One second he is talking normally, the next he slumps to the floor as if paralysed. Mohammad has cataplexy, which means that any feeling of heightened emotion leads to a total loss of muscle tone. His condition is so severe it can strike up to 60 times a day. Now, for the first time in over 20 years, he embarks on the 30-minute train journey into London, battling the effects of his condition all the way.

Claire Rutherford and her husband preside over a family of boisterous teenagers in their large house near Peterborough. So far, so ordinary – but Claire’s story is anything but normal. Four years ago, the same common herpes virus that causes cold sores attacked Claire’s brain, completely wiping out her memories of the previous 20 years. This film follows Claire as she battles to rebuild her memories.

Nicola Pomphrett was also struck down by viral encephalitis, but in her case it has left her unable to lay down new memories. Nicola lives in a perpetual present time with a working memory of no more than two minutes. Now she undergoes a series of experiments which vividly demonstrate her goldfish-like inability to recall new information.

And for Seattle teenager Alanna Wong, ‘normal’ life is measured in periods of seven to ten days at a time. She suffers from the rare sleeping disorder Kleine-Levin Syndrome, which causes her to sleep for up to 20 hours a day. In attempt to confirm her diagnosis once and for all, this film records Alanna as she undergoes an advanced brain scan.

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