2009.06.24 Like a hole in the head

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

I have great trepidation about trepanation. That’s a pretty sappy first line, but it’s true. My head doesn’t need any more holes than it already possesses.

The topic of drilling holes in the skull came up this morning when I read an article about trepanation as a cure for dementia.

The idea comes from a Soviet researcher named Yuri Moskalenko who is exploring the concept of treating Alzheimer’s disease via a hole in the head. He’s so convinced of the notion that he thinks anyone in their mid-40s and older could slow or reverse age-related cognitive disease with some careful removal of bone.

There’s no mention in the article about the condition of Moskalenko’s skull. Has he allowed drilling?

Trepanning has been going on for a long time. Skulls from 2,500 years ago show evidence of carefully chiseled holes, but you can only guess at the reason.

A lot of people go along with the theory that holes were made to allow evil spirits to escape. Many skulls in Central and South America show evidence of medical work. Skulls injured in battle were repaired through primitive surgery, just like modern surgeons do in some cases of head trauma.

No discussion of trepanation would be complete without mention of Amanda Fielding who, at the age of 27, managed a do-it-yourself job.

She couldn’t find a good surgeon to do the work, so she bought a dentist’s drill and started practicing on human skulls. When she thought she had the technique right, she set up her foot-powered drill and started in at her forehead.

Feeling queasy yet?

She stopped every so often to dip the drill bit in water to cool it down.

“It seemed to take an amazingly long time,” she said afterward.

Her theory is that removal of a piece of skull gives the brain a little extra room to swell, a little rise in consciousness with each beat of the heart.

She claims to have felt some relaxation and elation over the next few hours. Her post-surgery care amounted to going out for a good steak dinner and then attending a party.

I don’t know if it’s good for Yuri Moskalenko’s efforts, but Fielding—also known as Lady Neidpath—is now associated with him and his brain work. They both see benefits in altering the skull.

Current Alzheimer’s research points toward a problem with reduced blood flow into the brain and reduced outflow of cerebrospinal fluid. As we age, the brain hardens and the process doesn’t work as well. Less oxygen and nutrients make it upstairs, fewer waste products come back out the bottom of the skull. The elasticity of the system is reduced and car keys are more often misplaced.

What’s his name...um, it’s on the tip of my tongue...Moskalenko, that’s it. He first studied people who had undergone trepanation following head injury. He saw improvements in brain function. Now he believes a hole a little over half an inch square might be a good thing. It could make a significant improvement in mental functions for anyone 45 years and older.

A researcher at Stanford doesn’t dispute the use of a hole, but he thinks the process actually works like a spinal tap—a good flushing of the system can help, much like an old radiator. A French scientist agrees. A good spinal tap can let out the built-up toxins in the fluid.

If a hole in the head doesn’t appeal to you, consider the laser helmet worn by sci-fi writer Terry Pratchett. A certain wavelength of light is said to repair brain cells.

Or drive your skull down to the Cranial Academy in Indianapolis and have your skull plates manipulated by hand (cranial osteopathy) to increase blood flow. This group believes there’s still a little give and take in the plates, that they don’t completely fuse together after infancy.

Or you might want to stand on your head every day for some yogic action. Even better, perhaps, hang upside down from a pipe in the basement for 15 minutes a day. Your brain will love it, and the neighbors are sure to get a cranial boost just by peeking in through the window.

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