X-Message-Number: 16234
From: "Jan Coetzee" <>
Subject: Researchers Find Brain Area That Controls 'Self' 
Date: Tue, 8 May 2001 21:44:46 -0400

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Researchers Find Brain Area That Controls 'Self' 

By Will Dunham 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Researchers studying patients with a rare degenerative 
brain malady that can trigger dramatic changes in personality said on Tuesday 
they have pinpointed a part of the brain that controls a person's sense of 

An area in the front portion of the brain's right frontal lobe appears to harbor
the sense of self -- in other words, personality, beliefs, likes and dislikes, 
said Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California-San 

Miller said he began looking into the anatomy of the self after noticing that 
several of his patients with frontotemporal dementia, commonly known as Pick's 
disease, underwent a stark transformation, changing their religious and 
political beliefs, and altering their preferences in food and clothing. 

Miller and several colleagues examined 72 people with Pick's disease, which is 
similar to Alzheimer's disease. The researchers used advanced brain imaging 
techniques to determine which areas of the brain had the most severe 
degeneration. They also evaluated the patients for major changes in personality,
values and tastes. 

Seven patients had undergone a dramatic change of self, the study found. Six of 
those had their most severe abnormalities in the brain's right frontal lobe. 

Of the 65 patients whose sense of self had been preserved, only one had the most
severe damage in the right frontal lobe. 

Miller said the findings indicate that normal functioning of the right frontal 
lobe is needed for people to maintain their sense of self. He also said the 
findings demonstrate that a biological disorder can break down well-established 
patterns of awareness and self-reflection. 

``This is kind of a mysterious area in the brain,'' Miller said in an interview.
``The question is why in this non-language area do we see a loss of self 
concepts. And the answer is: We don't know.'' 

The study was presented during a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in

An Incurable Illness 

Pick's disease is a slow, progressive, degenerative disease that eventually 
progresses to death. The incurable ailment involves deterioration in mental 
function caused by changes in brain tissue, including the presence of abnormal 
bodies (Pick's bodies) in the nerve cells of affected areas of the brain. 

It strikes about 1 out of 100,000 people and is more common in women than men. 
It usually begins between ages 40 and 60. 

The change in self represents an early manifestation of the disease in some 
patients. Later symptoms include losses in the ability to recognize objects or 
people and language abilities. 

One patient involved in the study was a 54-year-old woman described as a 
charming, dynamic real estate agent who went from wearing expensive designer 
apparel to choosing cheap clothing and gaudy beads and asking strangers the cost
of their clothing. Once a lover of French cuisine, she adopted a love of fast 
food, particularly Taco Bell. 

Another patient in the study was a 63-year-old woman described as a well-dressed
life-long political conservative who became an animal rights activist who hated
conservatives, dressed in T-shirts and baggy pants and liked to say, 
``Republicans should be taken off the Earth.'' 

The concept of self has intrigued philosophers, writers and scientists for 
centuries, but only recently has the technology been available to study its 
anatomical basis, the study noted. 

It may be deflating to some people that the very essence of who they are -- 
including their beliefs and values -- is merely another anatomical process. 

``I'm far from a philosopher and I'm a pretty simple guy,'' Miller said. ``I 
don't know. I'm so tied to the idea that we are the sum of all of our neural 
connections that for me it's kind of my approach.'' 


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