The most infamous man in the complex field of neuroscience died 152 years ago.
Yet just last week, railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage made headlines again, reaching out from the grave to offer crucial new insights about the how the brain works.
Thanks to a new discovery of old scans of his brain, a crack research team just found key data that will help them solve the riddles of complex brain diseases, with Alzheimer's at the top of the list.
No doubt, these new findings will improve the quality of life for millions. More to the point for investors like us, they could be worth a fortune.
Let me explain.
It All Went Down Like This. . .
The year was 1848, a heady time for the U.S. railroad boom. Gage headed a Vermont work crew for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad.
He was using a big metal rod to drive blasting powder into rock in Vermont. The rod weighed 13 pounds and was 3.5 feet long and tapered on one end.
There was a spark. Then a boom. And then the rod went right through Gage's skull. It entered through the left cheek, passed behind his left eye, and came out through the top of his head.
Gage survived the bizarre accident. In fact, he spoke within a few minutes, walked on his own, and recognized the town doctor who treated him. But history shows he was never the same person.
And his bizarre change in personality intrigues doctors to this day. You see, before the blast, just about everyone liked Gage.
He was relaxed and friendly. After that, he became mean and profane. Friends said he was "no longer Gage." He died a dozen years later from severe convulsions.
This case proved so profound for science that Gage's family agreed to have his body dug up and his skull removed for study. Since then, researchers have turned to it often to make new findings in the field.
That's what happened just two weeks ago, when a team from UCLA reported results based on scans of Gage's damaged brain taken a decade ago that researchers just turned up.
Those old images have become a gold mine for neuroscientists. They now form a major chapter in our knowledge of how the brain works.
Or more accurately, why the brain fails to work as it should because of age, injury, or some other problem.
UCLA's work is part of a massive effort to scan the brain for the Human Connectome Project. These guys have their work cut out for them. They want to pinpoint each of the brain's 100 billion neurons—nerve cells that form the basic units of our central nervous system.
Now, according to Jack Van Horn, UCLA's lead author, we know at least some of the reasons why Gage changed so much in the years before his death.
"What we found was a significant loss of white matter connecting the left frontal regions and the rest of the brain," Van Horn said. "We suggest that the disruption of the brain's "network' considerably compromised it."
According to the team, Gage lost nearly 11% of his white matter, which contains more than half the brain, as well as key nerve fibers. Gage also suffered damage to 4% of his cortex, which handles higher thoughts and is what separates us from other animals.
Simply stated, the metal rod destroyed key circuits inside his brain. Van Horn believes that accounts for much of the changes in Gage's personality.
Of course, the damage he suffered closely relates to modern brain trauma, Van Horn says. So, that alone could help provide new treatments for 80,000 severe head injury cases a year. . . and be worth billions in the process.
But there's a much bigger payoff in the making, too.
An Aging World Needs New Treatments
The U.S. boasts some 79 million Baby Boomers—and growing fast. Over the next two decades, a citizen will turn 65 about every eight seconds.
With that backdrop, the costs of treating Alzheimer's disease will soar in the years ahead. We're talking about current annual costs of $72 billion shooting to nearly $2 trillion by 2020.
The trend poses a grave threat to our strapped federal budget and to health insurance firms. But don't take my word for it.
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (age 82) sounded the alarm in an Op-Ed for The New York Times called "The Age of Alzheimer's." She co-wrote the piece with a Nobel Prize winner in medicine. You can read it by clicking here.
This is why Phineas Gage's brain could be worth billions. . .
Of course, Alzheimer's disease is no metal rod, but as it turns out, the disease does destroy parts of the brain in much the same way. That, in turn, disrupts neural pathways linked to what Van Horn calls "profound behavioral changes" in such patients.
This could be huge.
This accident a century and a half ago provides a major link to one of the biggest quests in all of science: getting a complete map of the human brain. Once we have that under our belts, you will see one biotech breakthrough after another after another.
Then again, this is the Era of Radical Change. The next few years will be like nothing we've seen before. At the very least, this steady stream of innovation means we will live much longer, healthier lives.
So, one day in the near future when we find a cure for Alzheimer's, we'll have a hapless rail worker to thank.
Him, and the big metal rod that changed the course of science.
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